I’m now outside the boundaries of traditional Christianity in a multitude of ways. I have no problem with evolution; I am passionate about caring for the earth. I swear. I don’t go to church. I don’t have children, so I’m not doing my part to multiply and fill the earth and/or match the Muslim population. I fight for equal rights for the LGBTQ community. I can’t stand Christian bookstores or Christian music. I don’t even believe in the traditional mission trip. I believe in paying people a living wage so they can support themselves, or maybe digging wells. I believe in learning from other cultures and respecting their wisdom without trying to force them to be different. I believe in Jesus because I’ve encountered him and because despite myself my faith refuses to budge on this matter.
I used to be a confident, conservative Christian. It’s how I was raised. I went to church every Sunday and attended a private, Christian school. I was a really good girl. A prude, honestly. I first questioned my beliefs during my senior year of college when I struggled to trust a God who let my mother suffer from multiple disabilities from the age of 26. I developed an eating disorder and started running late at night, trying to pound out my anger through the soles of my feet. By running alone on party nights on campus I was almost daring God to do something to me so I’d have justification for my misery.
I never got official therapeutic help for my eating disorder. I escaped it by means of spiritual and self-revelation. I had an encounter with God in which I knew beyond knowing that he loved me, and that was enough to help me want to live. Counseling was for crazy people. I had Jesus, and that meant I shouldn’t need anything else.
Shortly thereafter I met my current husband, and that’s when the next conflict with my upbringing arrived. Strangely enough, it didn’t come when he told he would be gay if it weren’t for God. I figured I didn’t have any right to judge anyone after all my god-doubt, so I accepted it when he said he couldn’t get around the design of the human body. Tab A into Slot A kind of thinking. No, I was fine with that at the time. I’ll get back to that. What shook me was the dictate that I have as many children as possible. I tried to break up with him seven times over that, not wanting him to be disappointed later and knowing deeply that I could not have children. He wouldn’t leave and I could’ve been more forceful about it, but he brought with him such a breadth of joy, affection, creativity and fun. So when he said we’d figure it out after I told him he couldn’t count on me changing for the 83rd time, I decided to accept him at his word. I didn’t count on the rest of his family and community deciding I was keeping him from having a fulfilled life, shunning me, telling him to make me have a baby so I’d be grateful later. I felt like an utter failure as a Christian, like there was something deeply broken about who I was. God, I felt, must be displeased.
The next hit came after we moved 2000 miles to the West Coast. I ended up getting a job for a brutal woman and all the dominoes set up to fall to an anxiety disorder began to topple. I began to have panic attacks, insomnia and depression. I’d be up at 3:00 a.m., pounding my fists into the lounge chair and begging God to tell me what I was doing wrong. In my mind I was convinced that my problems were my own fault. After all, if I trusted God I was supposed to have peace. As I left that job for another that was a much better fit I still fought the battle daily, putting on a brave face in front of others and collapsing in private. I had a bottle of antacid in my desk and I’d slug it back like others take Scotch. Whenever I would approach the church we attended I’d get a headache and become sick to my stomach. I’ve got to say, I am a damn strong woman, because I did that for five years. I lived on hardly any sleep, faking my way through life and feeling fraudulent at every turn.
If it weren’t for dear friends, I’d be dead by now. We were fortunate enough to get to know a group of individuals who loved Jesus and loved people, just as they were. They told me to fuck the “shoulds,” loved me when I was a basket-case, and cheered me on with any accomplishment. With them I was acceptable, no matter what shape I was in. It was my first time to experience true family.
The most recent faith-check occurred after being summoned to take care of my mother for two weeks. I knew it would be too much for me, but I did it anyway and at the end of that time I landed on a friend’s sofa, curled in a ball for a week, usually at someone’s feet. I felt empty, drained. I had spent myself fully in meeting my mother’s emotional needs, never feeling the freedom to be the self I’d come to be, and there was nothing left when I was done. I was filled with nothing but a deep void and an inability to function normally. At last, I had nothing left with which to support my faith. I had no strength to be a Christian. I had barely enough to keep breathing, and that was about it. In fact, it was really just an autonomic response. I felt done with life. The only reason I am still here is because, once again, people held me with love in a space that felt unlovable.
While I was curled up at my friend’s feet one day he said, “What do you need?”
“I don’t know,” I replied.
He put his computer down and gave me a foot massage (a trained masseuse) and left for a few minutes while I just laid there. Then he came back in and said, “Beth, are you ready to give the keys to parents’ lives back to them?”
“Yes,” I said. I just don’t know how.”
He proceeded to walk me through a powerful visualization exercise in which I gave up responsibility for meeting all of my parents’ emotional needs. That was compelling, but even more so because it was set in the context of me hanging out on a farm with a family that wasn’t freaked out by my state. The girls would bring me baby bunnies, and my childhood friend would get me out to the store or the park for a walk. They loved, accepted, and even valued me. They would remark on my compassion or my love. While acknowledging my struggle, they didn’t identify me by it. I am alive today because of those kind, wise people.
These experiences have all redefined the faith I have now. I talk to God like I would talk to a respected, older friend who I admire but from whom I do not withhold my earthy human feelings. I’ve told him how I’ve felt about him in ways that could’ve gotten me struck by lightening, if she were the God of my youth. I don’t think he is, though. I think the most important thing to God is that we come to him or her as we are. I think she wants to be in relationship. So that’s how I want to treat other people. The only thing that has ever made a difference in my life has been the act of others loving me without expecting me to change. If I hadn’t been ready to give my parents’ keys back to them, my friends would have loved me just the same. Maybe they would’ve been sad because they were hoping it would help, but it wouldn’t have changed the love. Love is everything.
You’re probably wanting to know if my husband is actually gay. You’ll have to wait a bit more. I’m not in denial and it’s a big story, so that’s a different blog post. The one thing I can tell you is that I endeavor every day to love him as he is, no matter what. That’s what love is.