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