Why I Left Church, for now

It’s become a nightly ritual for David and I, over the last two years, to dissect and inspect our faith—the Christian faith— as we tidy up the house before heading to bed. 

“Did you hear about this?!”  [insert vacuum rumbles]

“Did you know about…?” [folding kitchen towels]

“Could I read you something I read earlier?” [throwing mail away]

“How does this make you feel?  Because it makes me want to murder…” [wiping down the table and counters aggressively]

What does the future look like for us?  For our family?  For religion and church and Church?  We’ve all asked these questions.  We are still asking them.

As many you know & have witnessed my journey home began five years ago when I sobered up.  Phase I of recovery offers a survival training that prepares one for the ascent and thriving of Phase II.  In Phase I you learn how not to hit your kids when you miss oxy or feel afraid.  Phase II is more a manhandling of the soul.

Several years ago I began taking the steeper, less-travelled paths characteristic of Phase II with the assistance of my guides: my womb massage therapist and other body workers, Clarissa Pinkloa Estes, Riane Eisler, Xochiquetzal and Aphrodite to name a few.  

Each path I wandered led me closer to my divinity, my inner Christ, my goddess.  As the ground unsteadied and the charcoaled darkness descended I found that I missed the safety of Sunday worship and sermons with less ache. Melancholy slowly melted into joy.

Why?  I wondered… But I already knew.

Such strenuous soul work caused the umbilical pulse of my divinity to quicken.  Every one of Eisler’s paragraphs, every touch from a healer, each deep inhalation of forest and freedom strengthened the throb. How could I tolerate sitting in sanctuaries built by men (and more often than I can bear admitting— women) who benefit from the oppression of others?  

How can I stand under this stained glass while listening to God referred to as a man most, if not all, of the time?  God is not a man, I’ve met Her right here in my warm belly.

The more I learned about our cornerstones of patriarchy & dominator politics, and the more I witnessed how slowly we move to smash them, the less tolerant I became.  I’ve no problem with prophets: Jesus and Buddha and Hafiz and Isaiah and Hershel and Capon and I are best friends.  It’s the systems that began to tourniquet my joy.

Why can’t I sit in these chairs anymore?  Because we were never meant for sitting.  The healed man does not sit, he runs.  The person given sight does not watch the birds fly through a stained glass window. 

Since I’m currently enrolled in massage school, allow me to paint you a picture.

For 29 years the church and Christianity was a massage that increased circulation, relaxed & warmed tissues, created a safe space to heal. I owe my life to the Church and Christians and Christ.  But two years ago I began to tell the Church and the Christians, “Hey, you know this part of the massage?  The one where you use exclusively (or majority) male pronouns?  This part of the massage hurts me. And it hurts other women too, even though they don’t know it yet.  AND it hurts men even though they don’t know it yet, either.”  

“Thank you!”  They replied.

Months later nothing had changed.

“This still hurts.”  I winced.

“We hear you, and we believe you; but this kind of change takes many years to enact.  It would hurt our other clients if we adjusted the massage this way, this quickly.  And frankly, you sound a little angry.”  

We don’t have to go back, you know.  We don’t have to keep hurting.  She whispered.

But what about the kids?  Who will cement those important stories to their spongy little minds? 

You have a wisdom.  You have guides.  She points to the books stacked high on the coffee and bedside tables.  You can walk your babies up and down the same paths you and David have walked together.  Tell them all of the stories. 

You are the wisdom.

The massage worked because it was supposed to.  At those stages in our development we needed to be rubbed and worked in very specific, safer ways.  And then—we didn’t.  When the church, or massage therapist, couldn’t accommodate our changed anatomy, we left to find something new.

Jesus preferred wilderness, this is all over the gospels; he found his healing in the woods.   

When somebody’s daughter needed resurrecting, when a blind man finally wanted sight, JC wandered along the overgrown trails, through the meadow, and entered the cobble stoned streets of the establishment.  He worked his 12th step.  “Having had a spiritual awakening… [He] tried to carry this message to [everyone], and to practice these principles in all [His] affairs.”  

We’ll continue to trek back into the massage studio and we’ll watch the work being done, offering what we can when it’s asked of us.  We’ll help heal and hold space and listen well, or as well as we can.  

But when I see the twinkle in another’s eye, the one that says, I’m ready for more, I’ll wave that person over and whisper…

“Look, out there.”  Pointing toward the ridge beyond the meadow.

“Just beyond those grasslands is a wilderness where you will find something new.  Something that scares you shitless at first.  Out there it will feel lonely and you will wonder where your people are.  You will fear for the kids and the marriage.  For community and bears.  But stay close to the signs & don’t look away, keep reading and listening and don’t forget to dance.  You will find the new healers, the ones who say the things that made their pastors and priests and rabbis and imams and good, old friends mad.  Then, a little deeper into the trees you will see the faintest light—follow it.  It will lead you to the campfire of those who have gone before and who have set up camp in these outer lands.  They will smile widely at the sight of your haggard, eager face.  Every so often you will feel the pull back toward the meadow and to the paved places beyond that.  Listen to the breaths of those still enjoying and benefitting from the establishment.  Go back and help.  Heal.  Listen more.  Hold space.  Honor.  And when you see a spark in the eye of the woman whose belly is beating with the pulse of the female divine—pull her aside.  Whisper the wisdom of the wilderness back to her and point her in the direction from which you came.”

We’ve come to love & require the chilly nights out here huddled around the embers.  The kids and the marriage survived.

There’s something new, I promise, just over that ridge.

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Chapter 21: On Faith

I’m driving up to Boulder with David.  “Don’t Take The Money” blasts out of our open car windows while the warm August air swirls around inside.  The hair I decided to grow out flaps into my face and mouth, for so long I kept it short.

What if the cancer comes back and I lose it all—again?

As far as we know, the cancer has come back.  That’s why we’re headed up to Boulder for a biopsy of the largest and most worrisome lymph node that flared up in a recent, routine PET scan.

Report reads: “suspicious of malignancy.”

Where’s my eagle now?  I need you, Mama.

Two weeks before this drive along the foothills, on the day John McCain delivered his “thumbs down” on the Senate floor (I cried), a nice radiology tech escorted me back to the dark room after injecting me with the same dye that Rae survived.

If one blasts Alt-rock while wearing make-up & and a good blow out does that mean cancer won’t want her?  The hope is that the younger and more vibrant I appear, the less likely those greedy, rogue cells are to want my life.

Fuck this shit.

I’m twenty-nine!  I have four young children!  I finally woke up, sobered up, showed up, and now my Mama Eagle goes AWOL?  No.  I reject that.  I’m not hitting those rocks.  You hear that, God?  Cancer isn’t a part of this story anymore!

I know I campaigned on the platform of You not being a dick, but I feel duped.

My small doctor sticks a very long needle into my pelvis and sends me home to the wonderful monsters, the needy garden, the glory and horror of a life in limbo.  Every night I cry.  I text friends hourly asking for prayers and help and funny GIFs.

A guarantee would be great.  I need to know that my lungs and pelvis are clear before I can belly laugh again.  Cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans drip off their trellises; I can’t even harvest anymore.  My life on my terms or no life at all!

My faith is fizzling.  I’m stuck.  The swoop is gonna come too late.

***

I signed a contract.

I, Claire, will only eat organic food, take anti-inflamatory supplements, and live a holistic, healthy lifestyle in exchange for never getting cancer again.

I’ve made similar ones, before.

I, Claire, agree to do dishes, keep the house pretty, and stay limber so that my husband never leaves.

I, Claire, agree to feed my children on the most healthy (read: expensive & time-consuming) meals so that they don’t develop cancer, too.  And so they don’t get fat; life as the fat kid nearly ruined their mother.

David and the kids didn’t have to sign it them.  No, these belong to me.

The thing is, even the cleanest eaters get sick.  And I know amazing women who have wandering husbands.  Does food play a part?  Yes, which is where our Next Loving Step  comes in handy.  Don’t you wish sometimes that you were God?

Instead of making peace with the free fall and flight we keep pens handy just in case an agreement surfaces that calms our crazy.

We believe more exercise, better schools, more sex, bigger budgets, and stronger borders will help us.  Don’t those just reinforce our control?  We sign the dotted lines, vote along party lines, wait in check-out lines for the clothing and hand soap that will make us a little less OCD.

Where’s the faith in that?  I think faith is simply choosing to believe that God’s not a dick, and embracing the thought that no matter what, our Mama will swoop.  Faith might also mean believing that even if shit hits the fan, we’ve got a Mama in a hazmat suit who specializes in biohazardous materials.

Don’t worry, She says while scraping poo off our walls.  I’m here now.  She hands me disinfectant spray.  Yeah, but where were You before it all got so shitty?

The contracts we keep stored in our purses and basement boxes keep us enslaved, and afraid.  What if I violate the terms and agreements and buy non-organic?  Or don’t do the dishes?  Or vote _______?  (You fill in that blank.)

But believing God is everything God says S/He is?  That’s brave and it gives me chills. That means we have to believe God is Good & Hard—at the same time.

My contract with my own cancer keeps me enslaved to expensive foods, supplements, and anti-inflammatories galore.  Do they work?  Yes, probably.  I’m just not sure that the anxiety of skipping Chlorella for a week or two should make me pick at my heel.  Stress is proven to feed cancer cells.  Non-organic eggplants are not—yet.

So I’ll take my chances with the eggplant and celery and break my contract with the holistic health system one veggie at a time.  Don’t tell me eggplant is a fruit, I know that.

I trust in God’s Goodhardgoodness and my own NLS.  I believe that neither I nor anyone else can fuck it up.  For all the free falls I’ve taken, not one has ended in anything other than glorious flight.  Always.

***

There’s still a week left before our drive back up to Boulder for the pathology report.  David and I fall asleep whispering Scripture to each other with tears crusted to our faces.  Every fear we thought we defeated the last time around is surfacing.

It feels like watching an alligator lunge out of the shallow pond that looked so still and calm before the zebra bent down to drink.

12 days until the pathology report.

10 more days.

8 days.

6 days left.  The phone rings around 3:40pm, the week before school starts.  I really wanted to start the school year knowing…

Hello?

“Hi, Claire?”

“Yes!  Hi!”  TELL ME RIGHT NOW WHY YOU ARE CALLING.

“Pathology just came back clear.  We didn’t see any cancer in that node.”  THANK YOU.

“Wow.  That’s awesome.  Thanks for calling and letting me know.”

Inhale.

Exhale.

Thanks, Mama.

We cancelled the appointment, scheduled another FU scan for six months out to keep an eye on that pelvic motherfucker, and hung up.

Do you want to know something?  Even if the cancer was back David and I believe it would’ve been Good, and Hard, and Good.  They’re the same thing.

Cancer doesn’t obey contracts.

Neither do kids.

Or marriages.

Or the stock market.

What choice do we have then besides hugging chemo and debt so tightly that they pass right through us?

We must believe that when God reaches out to save, S/He doesn’t see the legal documents we’ve kept in storage.

God just sees the humus that needs some help.

Our lives prove this, and if you look deeply and honestly enough into your own story I bet you’ll be able to say the same thing.  Someday, if not today.  Do not lose hope.

You are loved beyond all reason and measure by a God who, despite popular opinion, is not a dick.

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Chapter 20: On Justice (and Jesus)

 

Here’s the thing about a Good life with a capital ‘g’— our thankfulness is not enough.  Acknowledging our blessings is only half of the call, and our praise without our action is just blue-balling God.

I’ve purposely left Jesus out of much of the story up until now because mostly, Jesus was a hero who didn’t belong to me; He belonged to the church.  Worship songs about those pierced hands and feet tasted stale after a couple of decades.

It never made sense that God would reject gay people but not liars, since they’re both mentioned in the Bible.  I lie all the time.  Wouldn’t it have been great if we witnessed His outrageous embrace growing up in the evangelical tradition?

We memorized Scripture so we had little bullets stored in our brains, ready to spew out in college and adulthood whenever we felt our theology threatened.  But what about the Bible as a love letter?  We missed the metaphors and allegories and poetry because we feared God’s love would run out when we questioned or doubted or…changed.

Jesus was a pencil drawing whose defining characteristics had been erased by Systematic Theology textbooks and fearful imperatives about abortion, premarital sex, homosexuality, debt, wealth, race, etc.

The jesus many Millennials (and recovering evangelicals) know is one who cares more about the less significant theological trees than about the forest of grace, mercy, faith, and justice open to the public twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

When I stopped using substances to dull the brightness of a Goodhardgood life, my eagerness to thrive and heal blinded me to the hundreds of millions of others who don’t have the same access to healing as I do.  Many of the posts here on this site focus of my healing, on my experiences, and on my story.

And that is fine, that was a part of the process—lots to extract.  Owning my own story here finally helped me believe in the collective stories we all have to tell.  Before, I didn’t know that part of my purpose was to help others hug their own Goodhardgood stories, too.  I just thought I was making peace with my own.

Sometimes we decide to stop dissolving pills under out tongues, and in that moment a brand new story starts to write itself on our hearts.  My new story felt so safe and right until the itchy, burdensome cloak of anxiety and discontent found me.

One day Jesus asked me to step deeper into the story of Kingdom Come.  Would you hand me that cloak, sweetie?  Would you go out and wreck the world like only a love hulk can?

I bet He’s asking you, too.  Can you feel it in the air?  Old stories are falling off of us like snake skin that’s grown too tight.  You and I?  We are the lovers God commanded to live justly, with compassion and humility.

Thanks God isn’t enough, though it’s the perfect place to start.

Things start to get really fun and terrifying when you ask, How can I help?

Justice is like asking permission to strap God’s glasses onto every human you meet, after you’ve put them on yourself.  Once we’ve all seen through heaven’s eyes in our own sockets, we put our hands and feet and prayers and pocketbooks to use.

Behind the big gray sofa in my living room a giant window keeps me smiling.

All the glories and horrors of our life get ushered back and forth by the breeze.  When a kid chops off a finger, I hear the screams and run out to attend.  When a kid belts out Trolls on the front porch the melodies dance through the opening and I smile.  Spring lilacs tip toe into the house using the same soft gusts that escort the yellow, peppery roses later in the season.

My days are better because of this window.  I’ve written about it before; how this little eden wrecks me with it’s perfection; how David’s help severs my bonds to the dishwasher and stove and laundry baskets, I’m a free woman!  And don’t get me started on the divinity of nap times and negative PET scans.

C.S. Lewis describes the weight of glory, and here—in front of this window—it rests heavy.

Now I know:  if I want the big open window and loving spouse, educated children, and good harvests for me then that means I need to fight for everyone’s access to those glories.  If something feels good and right for me, I need to step beyond thankfulness and plunge headfirst into social justice.  Just like Jesus and Buddha and Mama T did.

What if we trusted that each member of humanity was on our team?  That we all played for the same coach, suited up in the same dressing room, sprinted on the same field, and won identical prizes no matter what?

Jesus tried so hard to get us to see this.  That’s why He washed out feet and broke our bread, no matter what.  We’re all on the same team, you guys.  He rolls his eyes and sips His wine.

Ellen used to say “Hi, I’m Ellen.  Do you know Jesus?” to everyone she met, because she knew that Jesus had their name tattooed on His bicep.  She wanted to make sure the feeling was mutual.

Once, toward the end, a hospice chaplain stopped by for some reason.  He walked into her room and she asked him, “Do you know Jesus?”

“Well, yes.  Look, I’m wearing a cross and carrying a Bible.”

“No.  Do you know Jesus?”

Ellen didn’t care about the trees, the theologies, or the doctrine.  Ellen focused on the forest of Love in which Jesus let us loose.  “Knock yourselves out! Holler when you need me!”

When you start to see God’s love for all humanity, you start to care a little bit more about the healthcare, safety, and sleeping conditions for all humanity.  It hurts to look at the bloated babies who wash onto the Grecian shores.  Watching an unarmed black person getting choked to death by police officers isn’t how I planned on spending my evening.

But that’s where you’ll find Jesus.  Excusing injustice becomes awfully hard when you’re standing so close to Him that you notice the tears streaming down His face.

Yes I want the wind sweeping through my window.  I want the money for massages and the right to love my partner till the day those mossy green eyes close forever.  I just want it for all people now.  And I will resist any theology that tells me I am more deserving of it than anyone else.

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