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.

Continue Reading

Chapter 14: Ash

As Ellen neared the end of her life I made an oath. “When you wear one I wear one,” referring to the diapers she would soon require.  The day came, and it was as horrible as you could imagine.

“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this,”  she slowly moan-mumbled.

My mom and I held her and cried with her; then we strapped the scratchy, absorbent nightmare onto her graying, atrophied, weary fourteen-year-old body.

I sat squarely in the Fuck You God camp, but Ellen still believed.  Probably more so, because eternity was coming closer and she smelled like death topped with glory shavings.  Her only fear was living away from Mama.

Abruptly, the sobbing stopped.

“Now it’s your turn Claire, oh Claire, oh Claire, oh Claire.”  In an interesting turn of events her voice synthesized into a weepier version of Julia Child’s.  She would get stuck like a skipping CD, moaning “oohhh” in front of certain words.  “Claire” was one of them.

So I stepped into the same nightmare she did, and did my best supermodel impersonations up and down the hall for her, as any 5’10” sixteen-year-old would do. Then a little diaper dance.

Her slow Julia Child laughter barrels down the brightly lit hallway, still.  I can see her bumpy head tilted back in that gray hospital bed.  A human heart never felt bigger than in that moment.  Our tears were transformed.

There’s this picture I took after one of the Malibu fires burned up the hills surrounding my neighborhood—charcoaled soil punctured by sharp green needles of grass.  For a moment the charred ground that brain cancer and impending death left behind suddenly burst alive with love and laughter.

Each cackle and joyful boogery snort punctured the darkness, allowing the solemn scene to morph into a comedy of verdant life and love.

It was here, at this moment, that I decided my Fuck You God stance wasn’t going to serve me so well in the coming month.  I knew I would die in some way, too.  If she trusted Jesus with her bumpy life, maybe I could cling to the same Divine Love that Ellen knew so completely?

Could something be both Good and Hard at the same time?  Can God exist as Good and Hard at the same time?  Do Good and Hard even really exist?  Does anything matter anymore?  Because I’m about to watch my sister die in the back bedroom of my house and I want to pummel the pause button.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Oh Claire oh Claire oh Claire oh Claire.  I can hear it still.

Continue Reading

Chapter 9: Miracles (Family)

 

People say that God, like Love, is a verb.  I think Family is, too.

My very first moment of existence fractured my family, the one posing with the Doberman in front of the tiled fireplace in an old Spanish-style bungalow in LA.  Because the man holding me on his knee, the one who thinks he’s my dad…isn’t.

My biological dad was enjoying cocaine with Charlie Sheen, he isn’t in those pictures…yet.  I am the product of an affair between two high school sweethearts who may have been more love addicts than sweethearts.

Visible cracks must’ve appeared years before the paternity test, because we sold the bungalow when I was five, Ellen three.  Daddy moved to an apartment where my younger sister and I shared a sofa bed, which sucked after her eyebrow split open on a ceiling fan one weekend because—this has yet to be proven but I am still sure it’s true—stitches can jump out of one person and attach to the another human body while she sleeps.

When I think about my own five-year-olds having to say good-bye to David or me I want to reach back into the photograph and beg the two humans in charge to get therapy and/or go to rehab.

Reconcile with the traumas of your adolescences so I don’t have to deal with mine eventually in rehab and therapy!  I don’t want to ever say good-bye!  It’ll never get easier, ever.  I’ll just get angrier and sneakier and more aggressive!  Please!

My mom, who used lots of loud words and belts to discipline me, moved to a small house on Ozone Street in Santa Monica with a skinny one-way strip of street separating us from a park with a swing.  A man with kind, bright eyes started to tear away at the photo with visits to the tiny abode.  He took me to the swings and held out carrots to get me close.  He used to do cocaine with Charlie Sheen, but Jesus met him somewhere in Malibu and he stopped.

You’re not my dad!  Except he was.

At seven, a handful of days or weeks or months after the wedding under the sycamores, my mom fractured me further by revealing that the man with carrots and kind eyes and rage was actually my father.  I could keep calling him  _ _ _  though, because nobody would ever replace Daddy.

Phew.

Then Fiona and her turquoise eyeballs joined the mess.  Six months later Ellen—wait, does that mean Ellen isn’t my real sister?—got sick.

Because of the dying little girl nobody had time or energy to make the divorce any yuckier than it was by definition.  When you’re not sure if each Christmas will be the last, you spend almost no time fighting about who gets her on holidays, and you just make one big feast for everyone to enjoy at the table.

Somehow, civility never left the frame.  All my parents could exist in a room and function well enough.  Thanks God.

Daddy remarried, too.  She had a lot of energy and a lot of fun family members and a lot of love for us and her golden retriever.  She painted a Tigger mural in Ellen’s bedroom at Daddy’s new house off National Blvd.  There’s a Ross right there at the offramp where Daddy would buy my clothes, except I was a large child who kept getting larger and the kid’s clothes didn’t fit me, so he bought women’s sizes sometimes and I felt like such a failure because I had two chins & flowy flowery pants that my teachers wore, too.  And just past the Ross, a Vons.  That’s where I bought the Easy Bake Oven WITH MY OWN MONEY.  Ellen and I listened to Shania Twain and “What a Wonderful World” on the drive back to the house that would never feel quite like a home.  Then he got divorced again.

Sean, my youngest brother and a fellow bastard, was conceived just like I was; but instead of a high school sweetheart it was a worship leader at our church.  That’s why God blessed him with musical genius.

For fifth grade Mama made the single best decision of her life and put me into private school.  When she tells the story she uses both hands to illustrate the two paths, one leading to drugs and jail and an early death.  The other leading to Hillcrest Christian School.  She didn’t know that eventually even the Jesus path would lead to drugs and social services and a nearly-narcotic death.

Jesus is in all of that too, though.

Hillcrest became the home my address never could.  At Hillcrest they didn’t hit me, and they did’t get divorced, and not a single human there had brain cancer.  Nobody ever called me a bitch on wheels, and even though I was fat they made room for my body and my pain.  I don’t think God ever intended one woman to serve as her child’s only mother, and at Hillcrest I had a handful of women who held up all my filleted pieces.

My sawed up heart bled onto them as they sat covered in crimson & salty tears.  They reminded me that no matter how many times a dad left, I had a Daddy who specialized in restoration, a Daddy nobody could replace.

And my friends were family, too.  We had twelve in our graduating class and most of us had been together since sixth grade.  Sarah, the tumor-namer and cutter-of-hair, whose family sustained me in every possible way.  Shanen still has perfect eyebrows and a perfect little place for Claire in her heart.  And all the rest of them who let me ask year after year after year that they please pray for Ellen because her brain is broken.

I don’t know if it’s relevant, but I do know that the fact that my mom and biological dad have been married and divorced three times is worth noting.  Between all my parents rest seven divorces, a graveyard of Goodhardgood.

Family is the fracturing and the act of stitching back together.  It’s the ripping apart before the hot-glue-gunning.  Family is the people pictured in the photo, and those who choose to show up for them when it has all hit the fan.  Family are the in-laws who help rewrite every old story you ever told yourself about True Love.

It’s the community of people singing and yelling amen behind the big open doors of my church, where  big stained glass windows help us all see the humanity in each other on Sunday mornings.  My brothers and sisters at Denver Community Church Uptown welcome my sorry as AS IS. They’ll welcome yours too!

Later this afternoon we’ve got a big party planned to celebrate the end of summer, and my family is in town.  Daddy is here, like he always has been—steady and supportive.  Aunt Fi and her giant blue eyes flew in and did puzzles with the big girls before watching Project Runway with me.  Mama will be here too and I finally found an identity outside of her, which means I don’t have to explode.  _ _ _  won’t be here because I don’t want carrots, rage, or rejection for a fourth time.

Also in attendance:  Arm fulls of people who’ve helped Jesus hold up and stitch together the carnage that family can cause.  Lots of family-ing going down today, and I cannot wait to keep partnering with God in the redemption of it all.

Continue Reading