“I’m not the enemy, religion is.”
That specific sentence popped into my head, the first morning of Evolving Faith, when Barbara Brown Taylor was speaking. She was talking about the wilderness. How God is in the wilderness if we allow her to be, just as much as she is anywhere else. She spoke of the grief of separation from what we once knew. How “after grief, we’re not meant to go back [to the way we were], out of our refusal to live numb and small.” (I’ve paraphrased, I obviously cannot take notes as eloquently as BBT speaks)
In other words, the only way out is through.
Three years ago this month, I was on staff at a church. I was the assistant to the senior pastor (sort of, I mean, its what I got paid to do but I hardly saw the man, he was a unique one) and running a mid-week group for mom’s of young children, and attending a weekly small group on marriage (by Dobson, eek), and volunteering for the children’s ministry on Sunday mornings. We were also smack dab in the middle of prepping for our Halloween alternative event, meant to be a “safe” place for families to come, as an outreach to the community.(yes, that could be its own blog post)
The toxic relationships between the staff, and the senior pastor had me on high alert. There was a lot of conflict behind the scenes but not a lot of conflict resolution. And deep down inside, even though I’d only been on paid staff for a month, I knew I wasn’t going to last long. I’d heard the stories, how that church office had a revolving door. How most pastoral staff had a maximum two year tenure. How the longest serving staff member was the office administrator. How the board hadn’t changed in 10 or 15 years and were comprised mostly of yes-men, close confidants of the senior pastor there to bolster his ego and keep the finances in line.
But I had no idea, the wilderness that was awaiting me on the other side. The vast desert, devoid of human companionship, but full of questions and pain and grief and confusion.
Growing up Pentecostal, there was a strong emphasis on the spiritual gifts. Now I know a lot of progressive Christians today think spiritual gifts have no use in the 21st century and therefor dismiss them as unnecessary and ancient. But I truly believe that my one, distinct spiritual gift is what brought me to where I am now. I never did speak in tongues. And I’d be lying if I didn’t confess I spent most of my youth feeling less holy and less righteous because of it. I’ve never healed anyone and I feel fake whenever I prayed out loud over someone.
But I can read people. I can read a room, a relationship, a conflict, a conversation. I can trust my gut to tell me when something isn’t right, when I’m being deceived and when I’m in the presence of something holy. The spiritual gift of discernment has saved my life. Saved me from toxic relationships. Rescued me out of toxic theology. Protected me from a life of striving and never being enough all while being told I’m too much.
However, in these last couple of years, in the wilderness, I had stopped listening. I could look back and see where I’d come from and how I ended up here but felt so unsure, so fearful of what the future held, that I could barely open my eyes to look up. And in an effort to seek clarity all I could do was say no. No to the god of my youth. No to the religious trauma of end times theology. No to purity culture and the marginalization of women and people of color and the disabled and LGBTQ+ communities in churches. There was so much NO in my new reality, I couldn’t discern the yes anymore.
But yes in the wilderness is now essential to my survival.
When I bought my ticket for Evolving Faith, my enthusiasm was lack luster. I was angry at god for not healing Rachel. I was overwhelmed with grief and also felt something was wrong with me for feeling this way about someone whom I’d only ever met through their words in pages of their books. I had all my “No’s” for god neatly organized in lists in my mind.
And yet, with an anxious, nervous heart I got on that plane anyway. I marched up those steps into the arena and sat myself down next to complete strangers. And I wept. I wept for my broken heart. I wept for Rachel’s husband and her children. I wept at the beauty and pain of the stories being told from that stage. I wept for the wilderness I am still in. I wept because for the first time in nearly three years I had listened for her, and she spoke. Mystery spoke to me in that plastic fold-down chair in that hockey arena full of perfect strangers. And she was saying, “Here! look at this! You are not alone, your grief does not exist in a vacuum. Your pain is not an island. What was peddled to you as the gospel growing up is not what I’m about.”
And very distinctly she said “I’m not the enemy, religion is.”
On the second day of Evolving Faith, I attended Kathy Escobar’s breakout session for those who’ve been hurt by the church. Walking Wounded is what they called the session, which was painfully accurate. And as you can imagine there wasn’t an empty seat to be found. Ironically it was in a church sanctuary, being borrowed for the conference. And in those pews with every head bowed and every eye closed we could all agree on one thing: the church had betrayed us. The systems put in place to love and protect and guide and nurture and shepherd us had failed. Spectacularly.
But the thing Kathy repeatedly told us in her great wisdom (she really is amazing) was this: Embrace the long game. American Christianity doesn’t like grief. It’s messy and complicated and the church would much prefer you got over it quickly and moved on. Choose Joy! (insert eye roll emoji) But there is no exclamation point on grief. There’s no finish line in the wilderness. You can live there. Get comfortable. Pull up a chair. Make a pot of coffee. Take your shoes off. All that hand wringing looking for answers, for clarity; you don’t have to do that anymore.
You can have hope, without answers.
Religion wants to have all the answers. It wants you to follow a set of rules and fit inside a doctrine and tell you that’s the only way to Jesus. But I think religion keeps us further from the divine than we were ever intended to be.
I’ve heard it said that the only way to get Christianity right, is to admit that everything you know could be completely wrong. And I think we could have it all wrong, and yet still there is a Divine Spirit out there holding us together in love. That she has blessed us in our coming in and going out. That we are in her and she in us.
Some come out of the wilderness and decide the divine doesn’t exist. And if that is what’s healthy for you, that’s all that matters. Some of us will go long periods of time where Spirit is real and palpable all to have it crumble away at our feet again. Left to wonder, did I get it all wrong?