My Ugly, Messy Rebirth Story, Part 3

Photo Credit: "Despair" by Lusi
Photo Credit: “Despair” by Lusi

Read Part 1   Read Part 2

After my family broke up and I stopped going to church, I slipped in and out of depression—sometimes of suicidal proportions. I also started looking for love in all the wrong places. This is where those boyfriends I’m not proud of come in. This period escalated to its worst point the fall after my high school graduation, when I found myself unable to cope with the new structures of college–along with the painful breakups that came with those boys–and promptly made a plan to drop out and kill myself.

The Failed Religious Retreat

In a last-ditch effort to stop the self-harming thoughts that were overwhelming me every day, I accepted an invitation from some upper class Christians to attend a non-denominational weekend revival. Willing to try anything at this point, I even did the suggested three-day fast before the retreat.

But instead of uplifting me, the retreat left me more despondent than ever.

Photo Credit: stuffofwonder.com
Photo Credit: “Worship” at stuffofwonder.com

Here I was, sitting suicidal, in a crowd of Christians with upraised hands who were thanking Jesus for all he had done for them. The speakers were claiming some Bible truths about how God sets us free, how he overturns the lies Satan tells us—lies such as I’m no good; God can’t forgive me; my family has always had a history of mental illness, therefore I will suffer mental illness too, etc. But though I identified with many of the “lies,” I could not denounce them in my life, because they had been truths to me for so long. Whereas these people around me seemed to have come out on the other side of their pain and were now thriving, I was still swimming in it, and I didn’t see a way out. Unfortunately, the speakers didn’t provide one, except to say that Jesus had already set me free.

Clearly, they didn’t know my story.

This was a different type of sermon than I’d been used to hearing growing up. It wasn’t all about doctrine or prophecy—the common fodder for sermons in my religion. It swung the other way: Jesus’ saving grace, Jesus’ free gift. All I had to do was “reach out and accept it,” they said.

Yeah, but how?

How could I do that when I had no goals, no plans, no hope—except for the hope of unconsciousness? And how in the world could one evening of singing, crying, and praying, erase a lifetime of negative thoughts, family dysfunction, and impotent church experiences?

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Photo Credit: “Formal Letter Writing” at http://www.goodletterwriting.com

As college students all around me raised their voices in a frenzy of praise songs and hallelujahs, I became angrier and angrier, and more hopeless. The day I returned from the retreat was the day I drafted my suicide note.

Facing the Truth

I wrote that although I had always “called myself a Christian,” maybe I didn’t even know the real meaning of the word. For the first time in my life, I confronted God, cursing him for letting things get so bad, if he even existed. Finally I asked questions I had avoided my entire life: Where was Jesus in my pain? Where had he been when Mom left and Dad turned volcanic? When we’d found ourselves playing church, all the while imploding? When I’d spent so many nights writing and crying to no one but my journal? When I’d spent days hiding the truth about my “clean, Christian family”? And later, after my family dissolved, where was Jesus in my despair? For that matter, where had he been when the men I’d trusted with my heart betrayed me?

Photo Credit: "Cross--Christian Symbol" by Xmonau
Photo Credit: “Cross–Christian Symbol” by Xmonau

Being reminded that Jesus had died on the cross for my sins only seemed to mock the pain I felt at having been sinned against. So what? I wondered. What did Jesus’ death offer me now, in the moments of my suffering, when I couldn’t muster a reason or a will to live?

After witnessing once again how disconnected Jesus seemed from my life in the here and now, I knew what I had to do. Without a Savior for my suffering, I had no hope but to end it all.

In my memoir I describe at length what happened the night I tried to end it, how I failed, and the sorry state I found myself in four months later, during my discharge from the second of two mental hospitals. Here’s a paragraph from my memoir to sum up:

Now that my plans [for suicide]  had failed, I felt lost. Four months removed from the making those fervid plans, the numbness I felt was strangely akin to that which I’d felt while making them—only without the accompanying peace. After battling hopelessness for so long, there was a calm that came with knowing it would all end soon. But now, without that assurance that life was going to end, I didn’t know how to feel, or what to do, except to concentrate on the immediate steps in front of me.

This is the period where I moved into my own apartment, began hiding away from everyone except people I couldn’t avoid (like coworkers), and began my nasty habit of bulimia. There were nights I almost tried to end it again—I certainly thought about it enough—but the thought of hurting my family was usually the reason I mustered for staying around. I just figured I’d have to deal with the depression, or numb it, for the rest of my life. I resolved to live with the pain, doing whatever I had to do (overeat, cut, offer up my body if it meant not being lonely, write death wishes in my journal) to distract myself from it.

Turning Point?

During this time I was introduced to a nice Texas boy named Buc, who lived a whopping 1,000 miles away. And this is when I came back to church by default. Not to say God wasn’t leading, but that I didn’t really go back by choice.

A few months before I met Buc, I found myself occasionally back at church because my mom was attending again. Then, when my best friend, Samantha, introduced me to Buc and he was a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, and I moved to Texas within four months and we married within another two months, I naturally followed suit. (My memoir has the rest of the details of my move and marriage—the point here is my faith journey.)

If not for these “coincidences,” I’m not sure I would have returned to church.

Photo Credit: Billy.com
Photo Credit: Billy.com

So, I moved to Texas when I was twenty, my husband and I married, and I joined his church. No one there knew about me or my past. Within a few months, they knew about as much of me as my old church in Minnesota had known: that I could play the piano and I seemed to be a high achiever who could write. (At this point, my method of coping with depression became keeping myself so busy I couldn’t think. Hey, I figured it was better than putting a gun to my head.)

These new church members, like my former ones, didn’t know of my persistent depressive/bordering on suicidal thoughts, or my bulimia. Again, plastic smiles became my shield at church. But again, the hypocrisy of it all started to bother me. As a self-professed Christian, I knew something wasn’t quite right. I felt my life should be different from how it was somehow.  So I started doing the only things I knew to do:

I began reading my Bible sometimes, and other religious books. My journal turned into a prayer journal. But oh! When I read back over the prayers! How defeated, how negative! I didn’t realize that true conversion, true Christianity, was not just about directing my words to God (whatever they may be) and logging some Bible time each day. Somehow I’d picked up the idea (at church?) that this was all Christianity was: You have to read some Bible every day, and you have to go to church. You have to take church offices. You really should pray, too, but heck if I knew how. Yes, I was looking for a change in my life, but I’m not sure I was looking for a real spiritual rebirth—an inner re-creation, or makeover—because I just didn’t know this kind of thing was possible.

I was in the church trying my best to be a Christian. But while my fellow church members were telling me what a blessing I was, how glad they were to have me, what a good girl I was—they had no idea how bad I really was on the inside. Of course, it wasn’t the “plotting evil” or “planning sin” kind of bad. Rather, my “badness” was the depressed, forlorn, hopeless, heartsick kind. Mine was not a born-again existence. This was survival mode existence. What would it take for me to finally fall on my knees and give God all my pain and hurt and heartsickness? What would it take for me to finally find that “new life,” or that “rebirth,” the Bible promises? The answer begins in part 4.

Read Part 1   Read Part 2

My Ugly, Messy Rebirth Story, Part 2

Read Part 1

green and red apple
Photo Credit: “Red and Green Apple” by Just4you

What does it mean to be a born-again Christian? To read the New Testament, you’d think it means getting a whole new perspective on life, a new heart, and new behaviors along with it. Galatians chapter 5 gives a nice, quick contrast between the life controlled by the flesh, and the life controlled by the Holy Spirit. The former produces bad fruit like sexual immorality, impure thoughts, idolatry, hostility, quarreling, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, and much more. But the latter produces those famous “fruits of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (see vss. 16-26). To make it more personal, living a Spirit-filled, or “born-again,” life would mean new thoughts for the depressive (formerly me) who keeps repeating, “I just want to die” (Eph. 4:21-24; Col. 3: 1-3).

If an entire household were born-again, I suppose that would mean no more yelling at one another—no more anger and bitterness and malice. Parents would love each other and kids would respect their parents. Sabbath mornings would be joyful, not hate-filled. My parents would have stayed together—and our family would not have ended in an affair, an illegitimate child (or my beloved younger brother), a divorce, and possibly not the two older children (my brother and me) moving far, far away from a home that we came to know as a battleground. In a family that called itself Christian, how could we have gone so wrong?I believe it was because my family was not living a Spirit-filled life: we were not truly “born again.” (To read how Jesus explained rebirth and the Spirit-filled life, see John chapter 3).

Becoming “Adventist”

I know my parents were taught doctrine (a set of biblical beliefs) before joining the Seventh-day Adventist church, but were they taught about how to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Were they taught how important it is to “be renewed in their minds”—and not just by learning information, but by internalizing God’s love for them and Jesus’ suffering and death and resurrection? When they were baptized, were they really taught what it meant to be buried with Christ—to put on love—and to die to self (Rom. 6:3-4)?

While I am tempted to blame the church for not teaching my parents these things—because the fruit in their marriage and in our family points to a “non-born-again” existence—I don’t know the answer to these questions.

Bible
Photo Credit: “Black Bible” by Tacluda

Before I go any further, I should note that my dad grew up Lutheran and my mom, Catholic, so if a church or denomination is to blame for missing the “born-again boat,” several are to blame. I don’t know much about my parents’ formative experiences with church, except that Dad’s didn’t leave any notable impression on him, and Mom’s left her wanting more and better answers. She finally started to read the Bible for herself in college, only to realize that the Catholic church strayed pretty far from its teachings sometimes. (One example would be their changing of the ten commandments—deleting the second one and splitting the tenth into two.)

I know my parents, when they were newly married, came into the Seventh-day Adventist church through a Revelation Seminar, or a series of meetings that teaches esoteric prophecies in Daniel and Revelation, along with other defining doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist church (the seventh-day Sabbath, the state of the dead, the truth about hell, the health message, etc.). I know my parents latched on to the logical presentation they saw; they couldn’t argue with the Adventists, because these people proved everything they taught straight from the Bible. I know these convincing proofs were enough to get my parents baptized.

kids-in-church
Photo Credit: gritintheoyster.wordpress.com

And then my parents started doing what the Adventists did. They took my brother and me to church on Saturday and restricted what we could do on the Sabbath: no TV, no sports, no shopping or eating out from Friday night sundown to Saturday night sundown. They stopped eating unclean meats, such as pork and seafood, per instructions in Leviticus. And as I grew up, these outward markers, to me, became what it was to be a Seventh-day Adventist Christian—only I didn’t think much about myself being a Christian, or a follower of Christ. I mostly thought of myself as an “Adventist,” because, it came to my attention, being “Adventist” separated me from my peers who were busy eating bacon, playing sports on Sabbath, and attending other fun events that I couldn’t. 

My Fallout from Church

When I was sixteen, after Mom left with my baby brother and Dad and my older brother were angry and I was depressed, I started blatantly breaking the fourth commandment (“Thou shalt keep the Sabbath holy”) by working on Saturdays. Suddenly I didn’t care about breaking the Sabbath, because, well, why should I? I had been attending church all my life, but church hadn’t helped me any. It hadn’t saved my family.

I can’t remember if anyone tried to tell me about what it really meant to be born again: in this case, being renewed in my now-suicidal mind—or finding peace amidst the storm. Perhaps some caring adult tried to tell me, and their words fell on deaf and hurting ears. All I know is I didn’t see the Spirit-filled life, or love and joy and peace, demonstrated at home. And this brings up another crucial point.

Fruit of the Non-Born-Again Family—Plus, the Christian Pretending Game

happy-family-leaving-church
Photo Credit: “Happy Family Leaving Church” by iamachild.wordpress.com –

I remember many kind church members who I think would have intervened had they known what was really going on in my home. But my parents were good at something many other Christians are: They hid our problems from the public eye. After they split up, my parents admitted that they’d always planned to divorce—but they were trying to wait until my brother and I graduated high school. When it hit the fan, not only our fellow church members, but also my brother and I, were flabbergasted that things were really that bad. Mom and Dad had played the game well.

Going back to the born-again discussion—because I think the true root of my family’s demise was that we were not born-again—my parents today admit that they entered marriage unprepared and unconverted in their hearts. I don’t ever remember Mom and Dad modeling for my brother and me daily prayer, except that we prayed before meals and sometimes before bedtime. Family devotions were non-existent. Our lifestyle, filled with sports and fiction and media and rock and country music, was very secular, except for one day a week when we put all that away to “keep the Sabbath.” So we were “Adventists.” But we were not really Christians (not really living like Christ). Which means we were really nothing but posers, because you can’t be a true Seventh-day Adventist without being a Christian, too.

Roots of a Blow-up

Learning doctrine is great, if it is biblical. I believe that Seventh-day Adventist doctrine is biblical. But if doctrine is all you have, in the end you really have nothing, as my family’s story shows. Along with doctrine, you need to have relationship—relationship with God and Jesus that transforms the way you think and live and relate to others every single day of the week. This is what I mean by being born-again.

family-fighting
Photo Credit: Peacefulparenting.com

Before shouting matches occurred in my home, we should have been dropping to our knees as a family. Before my depressive thoughts took root, I should have been planting scripture in my mind.

“We do not wage war with mere human plans or methods. But we use God’s mighty weapons, not merely worldly weapons…with these, we take captive every thought to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5). What if my parents had learned, and I had learned, to take every thought captive to Christ?

Oh, what a much happier story I’d have to tell.

Instead, we went to church angry, put on plastic smiles, and then, when everything blew up, we kept those things out of sight, too. I learned to keep my depression out of sight. Then, when the façade became too farcical for me, I disappeared from church altogether.

The good news is that when your spiritual leaders fail you (possibly because they don’t know what you need, if they even know what they need), God can still get to your heart. He eventually got to mine. Sadly, it’s also true that the sins of the parents reach into the third and fourth generations—so sometimes even as we are coming back to God, it’s a murky, uphill battle. There are consequences to living opposed to God’s laws, and it can take a long time for life to smooth out again (hence my “ugly, messy” rebirth story).

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Photo Credit: “From Roots to Fruits” on faithstudentministries.com

Before I can tell you about the good fruit God eventually produced in me, in part three, I will expand on the lingering effects of growing up in a (church) culture where I thought it was “not okay” to ask for help—as well as the idea that there wasn’t anything inherently life-changing about Jesus, his Word, or prayer.

Read Part 1

My Ugly, Messy Rebirth Story, Part 1

When I was a little girl, going to church on Saturday (because we were Seventh-day Adventist Christians), was a disaster. I was apparently in my feminist phase, and I refused to wear dresses. I used to throw tantrums. Yes, the same woman who is quiet and reserved today—the one whom many dub phlegmatic and calm—was a stomping, screaming terror.

Temper Tantrum
Photo Credit: http://no-maam.blogspot.com/2012/06/woman-most-responsible-teenager-in.html

Why were the worst days on Sabbath? And not just for me, but for my whole family? We all yelled at each other, piled into the car with frowns on our faces, and crinkled brows. We drove to church seething at one another. My parents usually still made me wear a dress…after up to an hour of screaming at me and me screaming back.

Oh my.

Then we got to church and acted happy—I think. Truth is, my memory has left a lot of gaps, especially of the early years, which makes it hard to write a memoir sometimes. So here’s a digression…because this is a messy testimony…

Blanking Out the Past…Because It Hurts

I’ve been writing to my roots (writing this blog and writing my memoir) for about a year, and memories of my childhood are just starting to surface. It was only in the second draft of my memoir, after my editor pushed me to go there, that I delved into my formative years. Why is this?

I think it’s because I needed time to get back there. After my parents’ divorce and my depression, my suicide attempts and my hospitalizations, the present moment—the struggle to just maintain life and just be—became all consuming. I plumb forgot about my past, bad and good.

I used my parents’ divorce and the mess surrounding it to justify my depression and my eating disorder, among other self-sabotaging behaviors. I discounted the fact that—hello—I had depressive tendencies long before my home blew up. And now we go back to the story.

Bad Beginnings

Sad Tears
Photo Credit: “Sad Tears” by Lusi

In writing to my roots, I’ve uncovered the ugly truth that I was always a melancholy child. Facing the fact that the problem has always been inside me—and it didn’t come from any externals (although it was certainly exacerbated by them)—has been hard. It means I can’t totally blame the dysfunction of my early adulthood on my parents or my church or anyone else—except the enemy of my soul.

It’s hit me hard lately that he was attacking me from very early on. I always had the tendencies to stress and despondency and impossible perfection that I still blog about. I remember freaking out about doing my fifth grade Science worksheets “just right.” I remember that my sixth grade Minnesota portfolio had to excel everyone else’s. Every year of elementary, I had to beat out the other kids in the reading program.

At home, I used to rant and rave about how stressed I was, making entire days a living hell for my parents. I learned there was some power in airing all my negative thoughts—“Life sucks,” “I wish I could die”—because they got me some attention. Even when I was shut away in my room, I wallowed for hours, yelling, weeping, complaining. Everyone knew when I was in a bad mood, because it clouded the whole house.

It’s amazing to me that these messages found their way into my brain so early, and that life was sometimes too heavy to handle, even at age ten. (Satan’s that good—I mean, that bad—isn’t he?)

Okay, let me pause again. These admissions are really embarrassing, but I make them in hopes of showing how our negative roots (negative thoughts) must lead to more and more negative fruits (negative behaviors) later in life. In my case, though my outward tantrums stopped around teenage-hood, I found other ways, inward ways, to sulk. The biggest way was keeping a very negative journal from age fourteen until age twenty-five—which, though less visible to the world, still reinforced my poisonous thoughts every bit as much as my childhood tantrums.

Tantrums Change…Temperaments Don’t…or Do They?

melancholy
Photo Credit: “Melancholy” by Lusi

For most of my life, I’ve classed myself as a Christian. However, after I married and entered my adult phase (which events, I think, happened in that order), it always struck me as problematic that I still lived with my negative, “please let me die” thoughts. Was this the kind of fruit a truly “born-again” Christian should be producing?

Writing on the new life in Christ we are promised when we accept Jesus as our Savior, Paul said, “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). Romans 8:1-17 is all about living life through the Spirit, in fact, and it’s all about inward renewal, or thoughts. It tells me Jesus conquered “sin in sinful man” so that I could live not according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit (vss. 3 and 4).

The true, spirit-filled life doesn’t sound like it includes wanting to die. The “born-again” experience doesn’t seem like it has room for thoughts like, “Life sucks.” When I think back now to my life before rebirth, I see what Paul meant by his statement, “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.”

Before I accepted Jesus as my Savior on the inside, my mind was centered on death…which tells me that, although I was “in the church,” I wasn’t really “born-again.”

In part 2, I will explore why some Christians are depressed, and why my “Christian” family eventually imploded.

Read Part 2

A Memoir for Disillusioned Christians: Addie Zierman’s When We Were on Fire

when we were on fireSometimes when you have grown up in a certain discourse community, or a group of people who share a common “language,” you learn to spout off sayings without even thinking about them. In the Christian world, some of these sayings include “born again,” “saved,” “lost.” You forget that outsiders don’t really know what these things mean. You yourself become desensitized to their real meaning. You can lose your faith when you realize that fellow church goers aren’t interested in probing for deeper meaning, or for deep relationships. Such was the case with Addie Zierman, who has recorded her experiences for curious readers.

Summary

Addie’s memoir, When We Were on Fire, shares the experience of someone who was steeped in evangelical culture from birth, thought she was on fire for God…and then fizzled out, realizing that what she’d always believed in was a lot of clichés that didn’t personally ring true.

Addie goes through a period of disillusionment, in which she starts to see that many of the Christians she knows don’t really care to get to know her and her problems; they want to gloss over the messiness of life with quick fixes, like “You will never be lonely with Jesus.”

“Yeah, but that thing about never being lonely? Sometimes I am,” Addie tells her Bible study group, and the leader responds, “Thanks for the feedback, Addie, we’re not really going there today. Now, let’s move on to question five” (a paraphrase).

Never being “heard” in Christian circles leads Addie to her rebellious-slash-depressed period, in which she tries to drown her sorrows in alcohol and an “almost” affair.

A turning point, if there is one, comes when Addie finds out she is pregnant. She decides she doesn’t want to be bitter for her son’s sake; plus, it feels like time to get over the past.

It’s sad to me that she’s still sort of cynical at the end; although the place she leaves the book might be just right for making her point that faith isn’t simple. A testimony can’t be broken into before and after, black and white, dark and light (and this is a point I’ve made on my blog, too).

Analysis

I really appreciate Zierman’s honest look at how her faith hurt her. Particularly well done were her scenes dealing with her ex boyfriends, paragons of virtue she aspired to imitate. She makes the point that a heart can be broken even if one “saves herself for marriage”; this happened to her by her boyfriend Chris, who, in trying to be a model missionary, exploited Addie’s innocence and broke her heart.

I also was affected by the theme of Christian clichés throughout the book—or Addie’s point that certain “evangelical-words-turned-weapons” “have grown so heavy; they groan, now, under the weight of all their baggage.” Some of her examples:

Like when you say, Sorry, I’m dating Jesus right now in order to terminate the possibility of a relationship with all its messiness, all of its complexity, all of its potential for breaking your heart.

You say, I’m saving myself for marriage, as if the heart can only be broken by the act of sex…

You tell the Church People you are lonely, and they say, Let God be your friend or they say, What a friend we have in Jesus! And what you hear is that you don’t have the right to be lonely, that if your faith was stronger than this, bigger than this, you would be happy.

And then, the main point of her book (to me):

And it occurs to you that the real work of faith has nothing to do with saying the right words. It has to do with redefining them, chipping away at the calcified outer crust until you find the simple truth at the heart of it all. Jesus.

I read through this book ravenously, because it spoke to some of the same issues I am lately unearthing by writing to my roots. I feel Addie’s rage at being fed cliché after cliché without equally experiencing practical demonstrations of Christ’s love. The thing is, as she writes in her author’s interview, people like her ex, Chris, are so steeped in the language, the clichés of Christianity, that they don’t even realize that, in following a God-appointed “mission,” they are hurting others directly in their path—doing “what Jesus would never do.”

It’s not entirely fair to blame other Christians. As Addie admitted, and as I will admit, we are guilty of also being the “Super Christian, bowling over others’ feelings with [our] passion. [We] have been unkind and careless more times than [we] care to admit. [We’ve] missed the loneliness of others simply because [we weren’t] really looking.” Yes. I know I’ve done that. And I repent of it, and after reading someone else’s experience of being on the other end, I pray God helps me to stop it!

Dislikes 

The F-bomb (along with lots of alcohol) starts showing up in the latter parts, when Addie enters her “rebellious” stage (warning, for you sensitive souls). Though it hurt my sensibilities, too, I did have to chuckle when she wrote, post-rebellion: “Though I’m trying to watch my language, sometimes fuck is just the right word” (paraphrased again). I see in Addie aspects of myself that I’m not proud of, but that are nonetheless there. She’s right; sometimes it is (the right word). Though I don’t condone swearing, I have to admit I do it sometimes; moreover, I think Addie’s done an important work  in being real on the page so we imperfect Christians can finally relate.

I would have liked to see Addie delve deeper into why she fell so low. As my book consultant wrote in her review of this same work, it seems Addie didn’t quite reach as deeply as she could have to describe what plummeted her into depression. It seemed to come too quickly, without enough explanation. Maybe the excellent foregoing chapters of her childhood/adolescence were the explanation, though. I can testify that a long build-up of factors can suddenly mushroom into catastrophe; after a lot of disappointment in life, you don’t need a cataclysmic rainstorm to wash you out—maybe just a little sprinkle.

Recommendation

I highly recommend this book if you have issues with your faith or want to understand evangelical culture better. For me, the book has been inspiring on multiple levels: I feel both validated as a disillusioned Christian, and energized to write about my similar, yet different, experience. My memoir (currently in revision stages) ends in a better place than hers: that is, I don’t leave my church, and I discover a real answer for the clichés, which is The Hidden Half of the Gospel, or the message of my first co-written book, expected to come out in January. Maybe when the book comes out, I’ll send Addie a copy. I feel we could be good friends.

Writing Towards Honesty

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At first I thought I was writing a book about recovery from depression, the love story that brought my husband and me together, and finding a relationship with the Lord. Now that I am revising for my book consultant, Christian memoirist Trish Ryan, I feel the topics expanding. She wanted me to set a greater context for why I ever got to the point of suicide and bulimia and all the other struggles I write about in the first place. She wanted to know more about my faith in God as a child and my family. In short, she asked me to venture into places I realized I didn’t want to go (which is why I originally did not go there).

Now that I’ve been trying to write scenes from childhood for the last several weeks (and they are coming out messy and muddled and badly), I’m finding that my story might be bigger than I thought, and it all has to do with being honest about how the church has failed me.

The more I write, the greater anger I uncover at a church culture that would not let me speak up and share what kind of help I needed. This theme also shows up when it comes to my relationships with friends and relatives—people you’d think it should be okay to share with! The revisions I am working on now are slowly bringing me to new conclusions about why I became suicidal in the first place. Maybe I will never totally understand why or how it happened, and maybe it’s not a problem that is specific to me or my family or my church. But through the messy, ugly, painful writing coming out in the last few weeks, I know it has something to do with speaking up, and the fact that I felt I couldn’t for so many years.

Sometimes it’s discouraging to think that after a year of working on this memoir, I’m only just keying in to the real point of it all—and maybe I’ll decide next month that I need to backtrack yet again. But maybe it all goes back to this blog and why I started writing it: I needed to share with people.

I’m working on a series of blog posts about my ugly, messy rebirth experience, and these posts, more than anything I’ve yet written on Writing to my Roots, have given me pause: Do I want to publish them? Do I want to share how I feel my church failed me, how it failed my parents, and how that resulted in a family’s demise and a girl’s death wish?

I feel a need for Christians to be honest about their struggles; it’s just hard to be one of the leaders in this “genre” of witnessing. I told Trish I felt like there were very few memoirs on the market like the one I’m trying write: that is, Christians seem to write really simplified accounts of how they found Christ (and what a difference he made to the before and after of their lives), which leave me hungry for the real details. Show me a life story I can relate to! Conversely, the writers who are willing to divulge the messy details of their lives are, for the most part, those who haven’t really emerged from the mess—so the story is real and raw and often literarily well executed, but not uplifting. I want my story to be all of the above.

Trish agreed with my assessment of the market, saying that when we writers undertake a project like she’s done and like I’m trying to do, we put ourselves out there as screwed up Christians, saying, “Okay, I’ll go first.” Not easy, but necessary if we hope to change the climate of things.

So if I publish some things that put my church or my religion in a bad light, it’s not that I’m denouncing my faith. It’s that I want us to take an honest look at where we’ve gone wrong, so we can fix it! Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted and set the captives free, and I just want to help the church see how we can help fulfill his mission. Sometimes, that means being brutally honest with where we’ve failed.

If you feel the same way, please pray for this writing project as it moves forward—that it would tell a story the world (and maybe just the Christian world) needs to hear, and that God would give me the wisdom and discernment to tell it.

 

Leaders, Followers, and The Mob Mentality: Part 1

mob
Photo Credi: “Crowds 2” by 2heads_Advertising

Mobs form for all kinds of purposes and on all kinds of platforms—a group of “Twerds” (Twilight Nerds) standing in line to see the new release of the movie, some gamers getting together to join a virtual world, a group of Christians gathering to worship—but the two things they all have in common are leaders and followers. So, I’ll put two questions to you:

Are you a leader or a follower?

As a teacher and church officer, I’ve observed that most people are followers—and even though I’ve always preferred to see myself as a leader, I’m undoubtedly a follower of certain things/people/movements, too. In my next post I will talk more about leadership, but let’s camp on the follower aspect for now, since everyone can claim to be a follower of something. To get to my second question:

Who (or What) is it that you follow?

To my (at times) chagrin, I often find myself scoffing at popular movements that create mob followings: the Twilight series, Duck Dynasty, Facebook, iphones and whatever else everyone seems to be doing. I’ve gotten into this bad habit of automatically rejecting certain things just because they’re popular, because, I figure, “If everyone’s doing it, it must be wrong.” I think this approach stems equally from my being as Christian (you know, “The path to hell is wide” and all that), as well as from my desire to be a leader (if I want to lead others, I can’t be just like them).

But is that the right attitude to have? After all, as a self-professed Christian, I have to admit I have a lot of fellow “Christ followers” sitting in the same boat. And obviously I don’t think I’m wrong.

A better approach as a Christian and prospective leader, I’ve decided, is not to automatically reject something because “everyone is doing it.” Rather, I must go back to my source of truth and test whatever is being followed, to see if it is noble, worthy, true, and worthwhile (Phil. 4:4). Isaiah says, “To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (8:20).

I’m not going to get onto my anti-technology platform (especially since I just got my first iphone) or my anti-Twilight platform, or my anti-whatever-else platform right now, except to say it saddens me to see so many people (and I’ll pick on Christians especially), flinging away their self-control, their dignity, their morals, to “follow” people, things, or movements that counter their so-called “convictions” or, at the very least, add little benefit to their lives. I know fellow believers who will wait for hours in line to see a midnight opening of a movie, but who can’t get out of bed to go to church. I know fellow believers who will whoop and yell at sporting events and listen with rapture at concerts, but who will barely look up from their iphones (sorry, that slipped in) during a sermon. I ask you: Who or what is it that you follow—truly follow?

Feel free to follow who or what you want, but please, call it what it is. Jesus said you can’t have two masters. You will love one and hate the other. He also said He’d rather a person be hot or cold than lukewarm.

Who do you follow?

I’d like to think I’m in the Jesus camp—that the one thing that would excite me enough to stand in line for hours, to go hungry for hours, to wake up ravenous (metaphorically speaking), is God and God’s word. I’d like to picture myself as one of the disciples sitting on the hillside at Jesus’ feet, unable to wait for his next “new release”—the next words He wants to speak to me. Right now I know I’m not always there. But that’s my desire: to be a “Jerd” (Jesus Nerd). That’s one mob I definitely approve of.

So, who or what are you waiting in line for? And does the person/thing/group at the front of the line confirm you are who you say you are?

Lest I sound too high and mighty for my britches here, in Part 2, I talk about some of my personal challenges in trying to be a Christian leader.

 

Of Bibs, Cribs, and Big Kid Things

Photo Credit: “Pregnancy Portrait” by MeiTeng

(Or “Why I Hate Baby Shopping”)

I am four months pregnant, and when asked questions like “How are you going to decorate your nursery?” I have no answer. When my friend sent me her daughter’s birth story, I felt guilty that so much of the terminology she used was Greek to me. When another friend offered to go maternity shopping over a month ago, I brushed her off. When my other friend loaned me a tub of maternity clothes, I was relieved that this was one detail I wouldn’t have to worry about. When my lovely sister-in-law pumped me for my preferences on a baby shower, I also thanked God that she would be taking the burden of planning that off me.

See, when people comment on how excited they are for me to be a parent, I glow with pride. But when it comes to planning the details of actually having a baby—both the birthing and care of—I find myself resisting at every turn.

What gives? Aren’t new mothers supposed to be able to think of nothing else? Shouldn’t they be excited to decorate, and shouldn’t they be drooling over bibs, cribs, and everything baby related?

Whether or not that’s the case—though I think it’s silly to lump all new mothers into one category as I’ve just flippantly done to make a rhetorical point—I’m not. You see, I feel it’s better to focus on the intangibles, rather than the tangibles, and I guess this comes from my personality (and maybe some academic training), as well as my Christian beliefs.

While I realize I will eventually have to deal with a nursery and birthing options and formula and diapers and spit-up and poo, I don’t see the point in getting all worked up over that now. Soon enough my life will be turned upside down, filled with feedings and changings and all kinds of extra housework that doesn’t excite me. Does this make me a bad mother? I don’t think so. Unrealistic, maybe, but not bad.

husband-and-wife
Photo Credit: Church Leader Gazette

Like some in the academic community, I sometimes find myself wanting to pretend that the material world doesn’t exist—that the best life is had by sitting in a room somewhere discussing ideas, or writing them down. I have idealistic notions about just communing with my husband over ideas and discussion without the daily intrusion of dishes and dirty floors. Can’t we just eat out every meal? Why do we have to waste our precious energy on preparing food and cleaning up and making messes that also need cleaning? I want to ask (but I don’t because he already thinks I’m too pampered—and I am).

This isn’t productive, this train of thought I’m on. It’s me fighting reality, is what it is, and maybe me thumbing my nose at people who only seem to live for the here and now. I’m talking about the people who are always preoccupied with the current fashions, or the next vacation they can take, or what new movies they’ve seen or the most recent Facebook statuses or their last (most recent, I mean) meal.

When people only bring up to me the material details of my baby’s life, I feel annoyed, wishing they would instead engage me in a discussion of how I plan to raise the child—what values I plan to instill, how I will instruct him or her as to God’s word.

I know kids and teens who have every material need they could ever dream of—a vehicle, a new dress to wear to church each week, money to burn at the theater for each new release—and yet these kids struggle with depression, anger (usually at their parents), and belief in God. And I find myself wanting to ask the parents: “When do you make time to really listen to these precious kids of yours?” “How have you ensured that they are learning to rely on God’s word, and not the world’s?” Aren’t these more important questions than: “Where did you find that cute outfit?” “What changes are you planning to make to your child’s room?” “What kind of car will your teen get?”

gifts
Photo Credit: “Go Shopping 2” by Lusi

I have to be careful here. I don’t want to belittle parents or other who show their love through gifts or acts of service. I have fond memories of one aunt who, in the midst of some of my toughest teen years, brightened my life with some special outward touches, such as a manicure and a set of highlights (at age seventeen, I had never had either). Let me not discount the good we can do unto others by gifts or acts of service. In fact, without these, it would be really hard to know we were loved. I am also writing from a privileged position; if I had to worry where my next meal was coming from or whether the bills would get paid, I’d probably have a different take on this topic.

I guess what I’m saying, then, is that while we don’t need to totally give up attention to material things, we should strive to keep our priorities straight. Sure, go ahead and give your kids good gifts. Have fun shopping for a crib for your baby and clothes for your teen girls and vehicles for your teen boys. But don’t do those things without also taking care of the more important matters. For me, these are a relationship with God, relationship with my spouse, and fulfillment at the work of my hands. (I guess if your work is in making material products, my argument falls somewhat apart.) I find meaning in quality time and good conversation, Bible study and prayer, good music and good books (yes, I mark my own hypocrisy).

Because I know there’s no point in trying to totally write off the realities of material living, my suggestion to myself is this: as much as I can, I’m going to make my daily, material activities meaningful through doing them with others. I want to view my upcoming life changes (like feeding and changing) not as detestable tasks, but as opportunities to bond. Housework, when my child gets older, can become an opportunity to teach him or her about responsibility. Clothes shopping? A chance to teach about thrift (oh, what a fuddy duddy I am! I can just see the eyes rolling!). Decorating projects (how I hate decorating my house!) I can choose to see as chances to collaborate creatively with my family.

I’m going to work at not being so opposed to (or snooty towards) the daily activities of life, 1) because I know I can’t avoid them, and 2) because if I don’t, I will have no common ground upon which to connect with most of the people in my life. The caveat is this: I don’t want to forget that these things are just means to the end of creating real meaning in life–real relationships and real purpose. If you have a suggestion for my baby’s nursery, or clothing, or belongings, I merely ask you to keep the same thing in mind.

baby bottle
Photo Credit: “Mother and Child” by Lusi