jesus camp

Last night, as my third movie of the day, my bed cluttered with discarded socks and dirty spoons and me wearing the same pjs I woke up in, I watched Jesus Camp, the acclaimed 2006 documentary that follows a pentecostal christian children’s summer camp. Half-numb with quarantine fatigue, it was the kind of day to let productivity slip and quietly absorb the ideas and activity of others.

So I was sleepy and open when suddenly I was nine again with my arms raised in worship and tears running down my face as grown ups with microphones tell me I am responsible to change the world, or I’d be lukewarm and Jesus would spit me out of his mouth. Revelation 3:16.

The church highlighted by the documentary was more extreme in expression but identical in content with the evangelicalism that formed my childhood self. And I went to those summer camps, where we worked each other into a frothing fever jumping to music, weeping at altars, speaking in tongues, gripping each others hands while crying out for forgiveness. I knew even then those intense spiritual experiences could be illusions, my more subdued church body warned us kids of these “mountaintop experiences.” It was your responsibility fight to keep that fire when you returned to daily life, or it meant nothing. I never managed it.

I’d forgotten how it felt to be a young child in the church until I heard those young voices, so serious and earnest, saying the same things I used to say.

I want to share a concern with parents and children’s church pastors who are born-again Christians, who either accepted Christ or recommitted as adults. Children do not have the abstract reasoning of a fully-developed adult brain. They hear your lessons differently than you do. Move gently.

I was three or four when I accepted Christ. The immediate purpose was not to enjoy God’s love and joy and peace, but to rescue my soul from the eternal damnation I already deserved. I’m three, so my sins are as small as I am. I scowl, I lie it was my brother who drew crayon flowers on the wall, I refuse to eat my peas. I am told that I deserve death. Me and my toddler transgressions are worthy of my tiny body being picked up by adult men, stripped of my clothes, and nailed to a cross. Blood sweat should roll down my round pink cheeks, I used to look in the mirror and imagine it. Thank God I prayed the sinner’s prayer. As I grew older I got in the habit of praying it over and over again, terrified that I didn’t really mean it the first time (or second, or third).

Jesus is coming back any day now, what will He find you doing?

When you’re an adult, you’re able to hold God’s judgement and forgiveness in balance. But a child’s mind is not as organized. They know that they do bad things, and that God hates bad things enough to kill people for it. They are told God forgives them, but they are constantly punished (often even with the physical pain of spanking – reminiscent of the physical pain Jesus experienced on the cross) for doing bad things that make God sad. That’s the language often used by parents, that their disobedience isn’t just against their parents but against God himself, and that’s why they deserve to be punished. In a child’s mind, it’s difficult to separate the anger of their parents and other adults of spiritual authority from God’s anger. If adults punish them, they must still deserve God’s punishment too. They experience the ritual of sin and punishment, while God’s forgiveness remains abstract and inaccessible.

A very young child is still learning that their mind is separate from the world, and that other people can’t hear their thoughts. Your mind already feels exposed. But now there are holes where the devil can come through, and God sees sins you don’t even know you have yet. Be rigorous, a five year old is told, to root out sinful desires. But what does a five year old know of these secret ways of sinning? They start rooting out healthy plants with the weeds.

In my very first journal entry (in a fuzzy leopard print diary embroidered with purple butterflies) at seven years old, I wrote:

“I troubel myself with such things. Trying to look like a grown-up or a Teen Ager probely because of pride I’m so pridefull I want to be better than anybody. When anybody says the boys will fight and save you I say I will fight too. I’m so pridefull.”

I wanted to grow up. I didn’t want boys to save me. Two incredibly important, natural feelings. But by seven I’ve already learned my feelings can’t be trusted.

Desire leads to sin, sin leads to death.

When I danced, I wondered fearfully, am I dancing for Jesus or for myself? When I did something kind, I wondered, am I doing this to feel good about myself or for God? No moment was safe from sin. And I was told tiny sins grew into towering trees whose roots would leach all goodness from my heart. And it would be all my fault.

At eight or nine I began to be tormented by a voice I believed was God. It demanded I adhere to arbitrary rules and tasks like standing on one foot for five minutes, counting telephone poles, never cracking my knuckles, saying amen like “AY-men” instead of “AH-men” because that sounded like omen which was sticky with demonic connotations. If I didn’t obey, my family would die. I knew God was a violent God, so it checked out. After all, God killed King David’s son to punish him for his sin. And I’d been told that small sins like lying were just as bad as murder in God’s eyes.

I developed bipolar disorder very young that often manifested as psychosis until as an adult I was finally diagnosed and medicated. But why did it manifest that way, with an obsession with pure thoughts and obedience under the threat of violence? To me, it seems like the natural extension of an adult expectation of righteousness distorted inside a child’s mind.

Bulimia, too, which I developed in my teenage years, reflected the religion I was struggling to maintain. Only it simplified it. The rules were clear: eat this, don’t eat that, and here’s how much. I didn’t have to suffer over pure motives or clean thoughts. I just had to stick to my diet. And when I failed, there were simple, concrete steps to “repent” and get back on track. Purge, starve, run. I played out the cycle of sin and redemption in a way that I could control and understand with a clarity impossible to achieve in a religion obsessed with the purity of slippery motives and desires.

What a weight for a child to carry on her shoulders! It sounds innocent for a child to say she finds peace in God’s forgiveness, and it can look so sweet to see a child’s sincere devotion, sobbing on their knees in repentance during a worship service with a faith that seems older than their years. But sometimes that devotion comes from a deep, chronic sense guilt and shame. Be cautious. Be gentle. Remember that they don’t have to be grown ups just yet.

Image: Melissa Askew

her price is far above rubies

I was eighteen and living in my first apartment, a tiny one bedroom across from the library in the high desert of eastern Oregon. I’d shoved two mismatched couches into my living room, one stiff white pleather, the other a fluffy grandma floral, and never thought much about decorating beyond that. I had money, but for some reason I never signed up for wifi and lived on a diet of off-brand sandwich cookies and ramen. It had no air conditioning, so all summer I’d wake up sweating, put my pillow in the freezer, take a cold shower, then fall asleep for another couple hours until I’d wake up again, rinse, repeat.

I was in heaven. I was helping a friend open a bakery, teaching ESL, filing papers for a real estate company, waitressing at a thai restaurant, teaching creative writing at the arts center, and developing and running classes at a children’s museum. Adulthood seemed pretty damn great.

One night there was a knock at my door, and I opened it to find my friend’s dad.

“Hi?”

“Hello, Rebekah.” Nobody called me by my full name. “I felt the Lord move me to tell you something.”

I’d met him only once or twice before, his daughter and I were mostly friends of friends. His mouth was a straight line under a flat gaze, the only real shape in his face was the v of his eyebrows always knotted in consternation. He looked like he was born a few generations too late, he wanted to be in the sun baling hay with his sons and coming home to daughters knitting his socks and his wife taking fresh bread out of the oven. In fact, I think he did.

He didn’t ask to come inside, so I didn’t invite him to.

“I only say this because I’m imagining my own daughter in your place. It’s the Lord’s will for you to stay under your father’s covering until you marry. A woman shouldn’t live alone like this.”

I’m pretty sure I smiled too much and said thank you. After he left, I immediately called my best friend to laugh about it — and to reassure myself that what had happened wasn’t normal. But even after I hung up, there was this uncomfortable tightness in my stomach. I knew he had taken something from the Bible too far, but there was still this unsettled question in my heart: what did it mean to be a Godly woman?

**

When I was seventeen, a year or so before my first apartment, I left home to attend New Saint Andrews, a small christian great books college in the middle of Idaho. We had to dress up as a sign of respect, so I was always uncomfortable in the few formal things I owned, mostly badly fitting slacks and blouses that did my curves no favors. Most students had grown up in church together and attended Logos, their K-12 program, so I felt especially out of place.

I was infatuated with one of my professors. He was so deeply read, and he rooted his theology to such alive physical things — food, nature, sex. He saw metaphor as inherent to creation, that the ideas of wisdom and strength were physically folded into the bark and roots of a tree. There was a particularly en-metaphored tree he walked by every morning on the way to work, and he prayed that God would make him like it. That was the way I thought, and I’d never seen it presented in a respectable grown up, least of all a man of spiritual authority.

It was a small school, so sometimes our classes would take place at our professors’ houses. On this particular day we were discussing St. Augustine’s City of God in his study, six or seven of us sat around his table and drank the tea and hot chocolate his wife had prepared. In the two terms I spent there, I never met his wife. Instead I knew her through the pictures framed on the walls, most of her luminously pregnant. She was strikingly beautiful, almost elfin with pale skin and dark features, and she had alive eyes that looked nothing like a docile wife.

The topic of marriage came up, as it often did. I was used to hanging onto his every word, so my heart was open, unprotected, when he said almost as an aside:

“Some women might know she won’t receive as many proposals, so she should keep that in mind when she considers who’s asking.”

It was like he’d thrown a rock at me that I’d caught with my stomach. I saw myself in my cheap black slacks that’s zipper wouldn’t stay closed, and felt my shyness at sharing my voice in class, and knew I was one of those girls.

He had no similar comment for men. They had the power, the magical gift of the proposal that we’d all compete for. What he was saying was: a woman has to get married to be a full woman, so she’d better be content with what she gets.

As an awkward homeschooler with zero dating experience and a secret growing sense of my attraction to women, this felt like a death sentence.

I didn’t know then, but the Augustine I also loved would have agreed with him:

Woman does not possess the image of God in herself but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image ... But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one.

**

Both of these experiences lay outside the Christianity I grew up with. But what’s interesting to me is my response to both situations. I took it, I smiled, I questioned myself.

I’d been taught that the woman I was supposed to be was already decided by theology, the rules I was to live by would be preached to me by pastors and fathers. If the bible truly asked me to cover my hair and be silent in church, I would be expected to do it. I would expect myself to do it. But through arguments about “context,” I was spared.

The line wasn’t “I am a strong, self-sufficient woman, and I deserve equal respect.” It was a man saying, “Well, what I think the bible really meant is…” I was never able to know, completely within myself, that I could wear lipstick and rent my own apartment and never marry a man. I was vulnerable to those kinds of messages because I’d been trained to be.

It’s taken me a long time to unlearn that. I’m still unlearning it. But as I smile less and fight more, I’m slowly defining my womanhood for myself.

Image: Holly Lay

i like watching porn

A few months ago I was at Powell’s, a goliath bookstore that takes up a whole city block here in Portland (it’s half the reason I moved here), and I walked past the young adult LGBT endcap as I have a hundred times before, when I suddenly paused. I realized: I’m allowed to look. I touched a cover with two girls holding hands and almost expected to feel something other than paper — electricity? hellfire? glorious springy rainbows? I read the first couple pages of a few books. It struck me again how … normal? gay stories and experiences are. I thought they’d be salaciously wicked, all salt and fire, but it’s just… more life. I took We Are Okay by Nina LaCour home and read it with cups of tea all night and couldn’t stop crying tears of absolute relief.

Sexual shame is such a powerful tool of control because it works on almost anyone. Most of us have “sinned” sexually according to the limitations of the Bible, and because we in the western world already have a cultural taboo about discussing sex, our shame rots in the dark. Even when you confess your struggle to God and to spiritual mentors or friends, there’s still this feeling that you are especially weak and especially alone in your weakness. And because many of us have consistent sexual appetites (because that’s just how a lot of bodies work), we constantly reinforce our sinfulness to ourselves. I mean, you’re not even allowed to look at someone lustfully. There’s no more effective way to make someone think “I’m a sinner” every day of their lives.

When I was a Christian I thought, “What would I do with all this sin and shame if I couldn’t leave it at the cross?” I felt so much relief every time I got on my knees. I needed Jesus to feel whole and happy and okay. Prayer and worship was like a blood transfusion, it kept me alive. What I didn’t realize was that maybe the thing that was curing me was the same thing that was making me sick.

I hold all this with such a light touch today. Sexual desire isn’t mounting evidence in the case that my life is an epic battle between good and evil, proof that if I don’t pay very close attention, I’ll dissolve into wickedness and pain. It’s just desire. Sometimes I get hungry, so I make myself a sandwich. It’s as simple as that.

So let’s all masturbate! Watch porn! And have sex!

(if you want to)

(there’s also no shame in not wanting sex stuff)

(what you want and don’t want is all okay. let’s keep those things and get rid of shame)

A couple quick asides: Once porn stops being shameful, and you don’t have to sneak it in rushed handfuls in the middle of the night, you have space to seek out content that supports your values. There’s lots of delicious feminist porn out there. If you’re new to considering porn as a good thing, I’d check out pornastherapy.com. Another recommendation: masturbate in front of a mirror! It’s fine, Ilana does it in Broad City. Or buy a new toy! (SheBop is a great local, women-owned sex shop here in pdx). If you’ve ritually shamed yourself under the sheets, masturbating in a different way is a great chance to change the scenery and say: Yep. I’m doing this. 100% in the open. No shame, no hiding, just play. One more link: omgyes.com is a great resource for exploring ways to make a vagina happy, whether you’re learning for yourself or a partner. Lastly: enthusiastic consent! enthusiastic consent! enthusiastic consent!

Image: Cedric Lange

why i left christianity: part three (final)

For the first time since I moved out, I was coming home to a place where I didn’t have to label my food in the refrigerator. We were a little family, the four of us. I’d come home to the smell of curry, and we’d all sit in the living room and watch YouTube and drink gin & grapefruit soda while we ate. I’d brought my piano, and I was writing music again. It was a golden summer, where I was just as likely to smoke weed in the park with my friends as lounge on sheepskins drinking $200 bottles of wine with millionaires.

I let myself fall. Fall from grace — moving in with my girlfriend and these other two amazing humans, all raised in Christian homeschooling families, all asking questions. Having sex, lots of it. Sleeping in on Sunday mornings and waking up to morning breath kisses until I forgot I should be in church. And fall in love — with my partner, with my own changing heart, with my life spilling out of the bounds I’d built brick by brick since I’d first prayed the sinner’s prayer.

It was the summer of my first Pride. I sprinted across Etsy grabbing handfuls of rainbow stickers and tattoos and body glitter. The night before the parade I stood on a roof above the city with friends and strangers belting out coming out songs I’d only ever heard in my bedroom with headphones. In that moment, I could have sworn I heard something like God saying: Well done, my good and faithful servant.

But at the actual Pride parade, the hot humid sun blazing down the back of my neck as we pushed our way through the crowd, we ended up stuck beside the Christian protesters. “God hates fags!” a man bellowed into a megaphone, his friends pumping signs up and down. “Repent and be saved!” You could see hellfire behind his eyes.

Behind all the progress I was making, no matter how much happiness I found in my new life, there was always an old man with a megaphone saying: “You’re not one of us anymore. Repent! Or you’ll burn in hell.”

The Christians I know and love would never picket such hateful messages, but even in the most gracious Christian spaces, there is still a strong biblical message of us vs. them. Ever since I’d accepted Christ at three years old, I’d been told unbelievers couldn’t experience real love or joy or peace because those things only came from the Holy Spirit. At best, their goodness was the leftover sputtering sparks of the image of God created into each of us. They wasted their lives slaving to feed their ever growing selfish desires. They lived half lives, just shadows soon passing away.

That perspective never felt restrictive to me before, after all, everyone was invited to the cross. But suddenly I was “the other.” That was quickly made clear to me. I may not have ever fully separated myself from Christianity, or at least not nearly as soon, if that summer didn’t end the way it did.

I was newly engaged when my then-partner came out as a trans woman. It was a celebration, I felt so incredibly lucky to get to watch this beautiful woman come into her own. But the inevitable happened. One by one, my bridesmaids told me they couldn’t come to my wedding. We both knew there was no anger between us. They believed I was killing myself. They wouldn’t hold the knife.

This was it. This was my choice. Either I repent of my happiness, or I embrace it.

I found to my surprise that I had no hesitation. I chose my new life.

That relationship ended, and we all made new nests in separate places, and now once again I have to write my name on my milk. But my life is only opening into more freedom and even joy — that quality of peace unshaken by either happiness or unhappiness.

No matter where I go or who I become, that summer will always be part of me. It’s my lighthouse warning me away from the unmoving shoreline and toward the endless ocean.

Image: Stephen Downes

why i left christianity: part two

A few months before my bipolar diagnosis, during an especially wet pacific northwest summer, I got re-baptized.

My first baptism was performed by my father with a batch of my siblings in our neighbor’s hot tub. It was a whole church affair. We’d cleaned our house top to bottom, there were paper plates and potato salad, and I was wearing a new blue dress. I loved when the church looked at me, I loved how they told me I was sweet and good, I loved when my dad congratulated me on representing the family well. He knew who I really was, of course, my home-self who was rebellious and sarcastic and self-obsessed and lazy, but that’s what Jesus was for. So I let him push me underwater and pray for my sins to be forgiven and that I’d learn to walk in obedience.

I wanted to wash that off me.

It was a white, soppy midsummer. Even when the rain stopped, my hair curled the minute I stepped outside. Every morning I walked past little wet, shivery front yards with pale hydrangeas, lupines, rhododendrons struggling to color up under a sky hard and sunless as marble. Every morning I tracked mud across the floor of the bus, every morning I arrived to work with a pink nose and a triangle of frizz around my head.

While my little nanny charge was scribbling through his math homework, I was drinking pots of coffee and reading On the Road and the Beats. They made my blood thirsty. I was shaking all over with the desire to run. I was getting hungry, so hungry. I wanted to shave my head, have kinky sex, smoke weed, stay up all night drinking with strangers. I filled notebooks with all the reasons I had to stay good. There’s Living Water for the mad thirst that comes burning up when I read these books, I wrote, and it’s alive, and it’s real, and it’s already at my lips.

But I wasn’t staying good. In that dizzied half-drunk state, and probably a little manic, I downloaded Tinder to swipe through women. Just to see. Not because I was gay. But there was this girl with lavender hair, and I just wanted to meet her, just for fun, not like a real date, not because I was gay, because I absolutely wasn’t gay.

As I walked the few blocks to the bus on my way to meet her, I began to pray out of habit. I’m sorry, I said. I just can’t fight anymore. I’m so tired. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, it was hard to swallow. Then I felt God nudge my chin to look up. And there, walking toward me, a beautiful lesbian couple held hands as an actual literal rainbow arched behind them. I stared until they gave me weird looks.

God?

I almost felt him smile.

But then I was holding the door open for a woman, and I was looking at her lavender hair, and shame rushed back in. Sweet child soul come back, I wrote that night, desperation rising in my throat. Like a weaned child with its mother, lean against the Spirit. 

The cracks in my good Christian identity were starting to show.

**

A few weeks before my re-baptism, my friend Anna picked me up in her big red Tundra at 3am so we could arrive at the beach in time for the sunrise. She had a dream to burn. Ever since she was a kid she’d dreamed of becoming a police officer, and for over a decade she’d focused her tremendous resources of self-discipline and charisma on that goal. But now she had a new dream, and it was time to let this old one go.

I had this terrible feeling I was going to give up writing.

I wrote my first “book” when I was seven years old as a way to process my grandmother’s death, but I was hooked after the first compliment from a grown up. It became my whole identity. No matter how I was failing in my life, as long as I could write something beautiful, I still mattered. It was a way to be seen, and it was a way to disappear. When I hit flow, it’s like I don’t exist, there’s just the words willing themselves into existence.

Being a Writer felt a lot like standing by that hot tub as my dad dispatched a small sermon. I looked out at all the grown ups smiling at me and felt safe. I was doing the Right Thing, I was good, I was wise, I mattered. I was playing the role that they’d written for me, and I was good at it, so good that I started to believe that was the only way I could exist in the world.

Anna and I walked up the beach and built a fire just as the sun came out of the ocean behind us. We tore out bits of notebook paper to write on. I wrote vague things like “fear” or “pride.” The fire had almost burned to coals when I finally burst out: “I have to give up writing.”

“I know,” she said.

I started to cry. Not from sadness, not at first, but from absolute utter relief.

**

On the morning of my re-baptism, I stood in front of a different church in another new blue dress. But I wasn’t looking at the smiling congregation, I was looking at a row of familiar faces who all loved me to pieces. They’d seen my hurts, and they respected me with them, not despite them. I wasn’t a family flag. I was a person responsible for her own choices, and loved independently of those choices.

Then, in cold trough of water out under the sun — it was hot that day, and dry, and bright — I went underwater, and I came back up.

I wanted my re-baptism to wash away all my doubts about God. I wanted it to heal those widening cracks in my Christian identity. I wanted it to turn me back into the sweet Christian girl who sang songs about Jesus with her eyes closed on Sunday mornings. I wanted to never think about girls again. I wanted my parents to be proud of me. I wanted to know I was doing the Right Thing.

Instead, it was the first step toward letting all those things go.

Image: Tomasz Baranowski

why i left christianity: part one

I feel the loss of God under the left side of my sternum. It’s like a bad breakup, a hundred ordinary things reopen my grief every day. The smell of eucalyptus, like the salve my mom would rub on my chest when I was tiny and sick before reading aloud books about wild-hearted girls who found God across the world. The figs and walnuts that drop to the sidewalks as summer ends in Portland, because I used to walk through my neighborhood talking to God about everything and nothing. Sometimes when I wake up from a late afternoon nap, I see hymns like dust particles in a slant of sunlight. I wasn’t a Christian because it was logical. I was a Christian because I was in love.

Then I got sick. Depression hit the light switch, nothing new to you, nothing new to me. But this time, for the first time, I asked for help.

Maybe I lost God in a doctor’s office. With my sweet friend Anna sitting on a plastic folding chair next to me, I told a doctor things I’d barely confided even to her as he stared at his screen and typed notes about me like: “grooming, hygiene appropriate to the situation” and “slowed psychomotor activity; eyes downcast; gait normal.” Reading the notes later, I wondered how a depressed person should walk. He diagnosed me with depression, prescribed me Lexapro, and shook my hand goodbye. 

A few pills into that first bottle, my head was suddenly violently clear. My calling hit me like a bolt of lighting. I was going to be a circus performer.

Portland being Portland, I had plenty of circus gyms to choose from. I spent all my time and money beating my body against aerial silks, lyra hoops, and trapeze. My dreams were full of spinning circus tops and applause, and my thoughts spun faster and faster and faster until the friction caught me on fire. My skin was burning, it was about to bubble and peel and I’d rake it off with my fingernails. 

It turns out that if you give antidepressants to a person with bipolar, they go manic.

Sitting across from another typing doctor, I realized I’d felt that all-consuming intensity many times before. Mania, not God, had led me to abandon academic ship and enroll into a non-accredited christian college in the middle of Idaho, where I studied latin and dusty old tomes with only a handful of other students, and where I took a little too long to realize I’d landed in the middle of a cult. Mania, not God, had turned in my two week notices and bought me a one way ticket to NYC where I volunteered some for Cru but mostly just walked and walked and walked until the only shoes I’d brought wore down to the sole. Mania, not God, rode the bus with me to the International Hostel at Seaside where I stayed who knows how long wearing clothes from the lost & found and eating stale bags of chips other travelers had left behind. It made the trees talk, the sky weep prophecies, the streets shake with visions. Mania. Not God.

Driving home from that doctor’s appointment, bipolar written in red on my forehead, I wondered that if my brain had invented all that, what else could it have made up?

I didn’t immediately dismiss my relationship with God. I still had other people’s stories of their spiritual experiences. The task before me was to separate the real God from the electric illness crackling through my synapses.

So I prayed. “God, I can’t distinguish your voice from mine right now, but I want to hear you. Please speak to me in a way that I can understand.” I stopped leaning into our conversations, letting my brain autofill his responses. I repented of my imagination. I expected the real God to show up. I trusted He would. I had faith that He would.

In the songs I wrote over the year or so of unmaking my faith, the same lines came up over and over again:

Don’t you want me?

Why haven’t you come for me?

There was nothing for me to do but wait.

(continued in part two)

Images: 1 (Guttorm Flatabø), 2.

i choose desire

It took me a while to take my apostasy seriously. I’d spent so many Sunday afternoons arming myself with logical arrows in apologetics classes, but it wasn’t logic that first made me look up from my bible. I lost my faith to exactly the things I’d been warned about: moving to a liberal city, making all the wrong friends, and really wanting to have sex.

In the end, I didn’t leave Christianity because of scientific skepticism or frustration with biblical inconsistencies or the struggle to reconcile the wrathful baby-slaughtering old testament God with Jesus, or even because of the pain I saw it cause others. I left Christianity because I wanted to.

Desire leads to sin, sin leads to death. 1

It’s a tidy theology. An anorexic spirituality that starves out desire makes it easy to behave and to control the behavior of others. The goal is to train yourself to remove your heart from your physical body — the soft animal of your body who loves what it loves — and transplant it into a future spiritual plane. Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them2

I was constantly uprooting desires, terrified I would be the seed choked out by weeds in Jesus’ parable. I longed for the day when my greedy consciousness would melt away into pure submissive worship at heaven’s gates. That didn’t just extend to “sinful” desires. Anything I began to enjoy a little too much, writing, music, movies, friends, could become an idol I’d have to give up. Every single impulse had to be surrendered to the cross.

Because you outsource every decision to the holy spirit, you lose your innate sense of direction. What you want and don’t want doesn’t matter, so as time goes on, you’re less and less able to access those feelings. It’s like an eating disorder, you override your hunger and fullness cues so often that you stop experiencing them altogether. Not only does this isolate you from yourself, but it primes you for abuse and codependency.

So leaving Christianity because I wanted to wasn’t just lightly shrugging off something I wasn’t feeling anymore. It took an active force of will. It took the incredible risk of asking myself what I wanted and the rebellious compassion it took to answer.

Instead of straining to hear a still small voice, I am beginning to claim my own. That is as clear an indictment of Christianity as any discussion about historical accuracy or the origin of the universe.

If I had to sum it up, I’d say this: “I am allowed to be happy.”

I’ll leave you with this excerpt from Mary Oliver’s beautiful poem, “Wild Geese.

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

1 James 1:15, my paraphrase but true to the text

2 1 John 2:15, NIV

Image from DLG Images

they say our hearts are beautiful

When it begins you think they are giving you power. You are a little rosebud girl with easy smiles and a heart to please. They give you music: sing this for us. Jesus loves you, this I know. You are the light of their life. You are a princess, a daughter of God, they lavish royalty on you every time you swallow your pride, every time you cry over a lie, every time you make a little art from the scripts they wrote you. You learn the right words to say: “I’m not that kind of girl.” You never wear skirts above the knee. You never think about boys. You say weed is a gateway drug, you say you prefer real literature, you say everyone outside the nursery are living half lives and you are living the true one. They are all proud of you. They say your heart is beautiful.

But then they begin rationing their attention, these men who shepherd our hearts from the pulpit. That pride you swallowed, whose pride was it? You begin to not measure up.

So you get desperate. You make sure those other girls know exactly what they are: other. Sluts. Shallow. Vain. Boy crazy. Gossipers. It’s their makeup, the way they talk, the boys they date, the way they dress, the movies they watch, the books they read.

You think you’re the reason you’re losing your power. Something about you is wrong. Your grip on your conscience squeezes tighter and tighter. Maybe you’re still prideful. Who are you to want their approval anyway? Have you made an idol from the love of others? You should be content with the love of God. Was this all a performance after all? (Yes, it was. The one they taught you, the one they paid you for). You’re looking less like a rosebud girl now. You’re a woman. You’ve lost your sweet petal purity before your first date.

So you get louder — you’re singing onstage now, you’re writing, you’re talking, you’re itching itching itching at their ears. But something in you has fractured. Half of you is lost in grief for the girl you never got to be, the other inconsolable with your failure to be the girl they wanted.

You want to rebel, but you never learned how. You are sick and weak at a soup kitchen, they ladle out three spoonfuls per bowl of what they once set you swimming in. All those pastors who loved to listen to us girls sing, they start lecturing us in batches about sexual and moral purity. They’re suspicious of our bodies and their appetites. It doesn’t matter now that we’re still trying, they don’t have eyes for us anymore. We are no longer princesses. We’re cattle to be pastured off into feminine grazing grounds where we all keep an eye on each other’s modesty while we wait for husbands and children.

Every once in a while we manage to earn a taste of their approval again. You have such a beautiful heart. For me it was writing. For you, maybe the same, maybe something else. We are on our knees with open mouths. It’s just enough for us to feel we could repent our way back to our prepubescent radiance.

Or maybe we get angry.

Maybe we say: enough.

Maybe we become one of “those girls.”

Maybe we realize the power we thought we were accepting from outside was only the cannibalization our own innate strength as women together, and that we were never separate to begin with.

And maybe we don’t have to be quite so fucking beautiful.

Photo: me, five years old

an update (three years later)

I’m tempted to delete this blog. The person who started writing here feels almost like a stranger to me. Many of her values I would fight tooth-and-nail today. She believed the world was a simple binary: there were believers and unbelievers, the saved and the lost, the sanctified and the worldly. She had very clear ideas on who belonged in what category. God saw her as perfect & holy & redeemed, but only because he was looking at himself and his own blood that he’d scrubbed her sinful body down with under the cross. So to her, shame was indistinguishable from love. Maybe I can be compassionate, then, with how easily she dismissed whole groups of people, especially the LGBTQ+ community but really anyone who had sex and cursed and enjoyed themselves doing it, and called it love.

There are so many things I’d like to tell her.

I’d like to have a conversation with her about enthusiastic consent. I wish I could say: If you’re not happy and excited to have sex, you can (and should) say no. All parties should be totally down with what’s about to happen, or genitals are off the table. I was so ashamed of “sinning” that I never asked myself if I wanted what was happening. I wish I could protect my past self from those who took advantage of that vulnerability. But I’m also so excited for her that she’ll find partners who will help her find play and healing and freedom. (While I’m at it, I might as well tell her that masturbation and porn are a healthy extension of human sexuality, and leave her a few notes on what a clit is and where to find it).

I’d like to tell her she’s certifiably insane — one badass bipolar bitch. Her depressions aren’t the result of laziness and sin, and her delirious highs aren’t the holy spirit’s quickening. Therapy and meds will help. Sometimes it feels like I’ve lost my superpowers, but most of the time I’m grateful.

I’d like to tell her when it comes to people, she’s got an embarrassment of riches. With so many incredibly fascinating and compassionate humans, she’ll make tea and smoke cigars and climb trails, binge The Office while drinking grapefruit soda, race grocery carts in an abandoned parking lot, dance around a bonfire on the beach in matching yellow rain ponchos. Their support will get her through even the most impossible decisions. I’d say: don’t worry so much about perfecting your internal world through repentance, look outward. Don’t take every thought captive. Go ahead and just be a person with other people.

I’d like to tell her that she doesn’t have to be a writer.

I’d like to tell her that she was right about the high cost of coming out as queer. It’s okay for her to wait until she’s ready. (But while you’re waiting, give yourself some positive language for what’s happening in your mind and body. Watch Nanette, read We Are Okay, keep bingeing those Youtubers and sneaking episodes of The L Word in the middle of the night).

More than anything, I want to tell her: you don’t have to feel ashamed. Or maybe more clearly, since I’m ever prepared to manipulate my own emotions: You are not shameful. 

I thought Christianity was the cure for my chronic shame. How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. But while one hand reaches out with “God forgives you,” the other forces you to your knees to say “even my good works are dirty rags.” I’ve left both sin and forgiveness behind, and I’m two testaments and a guilt complex lighter.

I don’t want to delete this blog. I also don’t want to start a new one and pretend the rest never happened in favor of a more linear narrative. Stories of change are important, I think. I’m not ashamed of my past self. But I’m also really fucking glad I get to be who I am today.

I’m grateful to all of you who have followed my journey. Not all of you agree with my decisions, but know that I feel your love, and I feel only love back. I think it’s our connections to each other, more than any belief system, that leads us out of shame and into freedom.

(I did weed out several old posts — oh the cringe — but I kept a representative and properly mortifying sample. Also apparently I didn’t care at all about citing images, so I’ve replaced them all from the 1900s Cyclopedia of American Horticulture)