Are We Saved or Traumatized by American Christianity?

 

 

When I was seven years old, I prayed the “sinner’s prayer,” asking Jesus to “come into my heart” to save me from sin and death. If you grew up in a conservative Christian household, maybe you did the same. From that point on, my spiritual life was shaped by this duality: saved or not saved, bound for heaven or bound for hell.

It affected every relationship I had, because it affected me at the core of who I am.

In bible studies and at youth events, I grew up learning about how to best share our “personal testimony,” that story of how we came to be saved, how we were transformed from sinners to people who look more and more like Jesus every day.

The problem was that the Jesus we were being trained to look like doesn't look anything like the actual Jesus-- we were being trained as cogs in the machine of Christian empire.

Every time I was asked about my testimony, I would chase my memories back to my seven year old self, trying to find some fault in her. I wondered if, in that moment she prayed that prayer, she had some transformation, that a veil was lifted, that she saw everything around her more clearly. Surely, there were some awful underlying sins that she was hiding. Surely, she was a heathen before she prayed that prayer. Maybe she was extra selfish, and that was her downfall. Maybe she wasn’t grateful enough and needed the promise of heaven to fix it.

Maybe, though, she was just a kid, sacredly created and wholly loved by Mystery.

As an adult, thanks to therapy and other safe spaces created with friends and family, I can revisit myself as a child. I can ask her questions, scan the recesses of her mind and imagination and see where she saw beauty and where she felt pain. As an adult, I can ask myself what my own trauma and anxiety stems from so that I can walk, write, sing, cry, run, or sometimes crawl my way through healing.

It is enduringly hard work, but if we are to dismantle some of the dangers associated with the colonizing evangelical Christianity we’ve inherited, we’ve got to look our trauma in the eye and hold the institutions accountable that caused that trauma.

Am I saying that every church member, youth pastor, and evangelical is a monster?

No.

I am saying that collectively we’ve done monstrous things, and we need to pay attention to the damage done in spaces where we promised someone salvation from themselves based on a one-time prayer and snap of the fingers.

 

Maybe we need to go back and ask our child-selves some questions.

Maybe we need to give them some room to ask us questions.

 

Today, the stories of Jesus tell me of a man, a human, who used spit and dirt to heal. He escaped to countrysides and water to remember his connection to the land. He told empire to back the hell off, and he held the oppressed and the young close to his own heart without shaming them into submission.

I grew up hearing that we are to be in the world, but not of the world.

But today, all I want is to hold space in this world with my relatives, human and non-human alike.

As Robin Wall Kimmerer says in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, “We spill over into the world and the world spills over into us.” 

If anything, the church has lost its ability to find its place in the midst of sacred creation. The church has been power hungry for too long, and has forgotten its need to stay humble and gentle, to learn from the world and the creatures in it, and to learn from the least of these when it has lost its way. We lost our way when prayer became a weapon that we wielded toward others we thought needed saving.

Do we need to be saved from anything? Probably. We see the way that systems of hate and white supremacy have permeated the earth and destroyed people. We’ve seen how dangerous the ideas of in vs out, black vs white, us vs them can be. Maybe we need to save ourselves and each other from that wreckage. But we have to ask ourselves better questions and hold space for better answers.

Little Kaitlin? She saw something holy in the world around her, an awe and wonder that was slowly replaced with fear and shame.

We must do better by future generations inheriting a belovedly created and wholly loved world, and their wholly beautiful place in it.

We must be willing to lead them, and to stop and let them lead us. In order to be good ancestors, we begin with soft yet fierce love today.

We must do better by future generations inheriting a belovedly created and wholly loved world, and their wholly beautiful place in it.

 

When Doubting Hurts

 

lord

when you arrive

we will be light

bread and water

the table is set and the door opened

come and take your place among us

free me of the belief

that you are only faithful from a distance

and speak with me

in the unharried language of animals

who from far off lie in wait for us

with their unadulterated hunger

–Said

 

When I travel for speaking events, one of the first things I’m often asked is if I am an introvert or an extrovert. You’d think that’s a simple question, but for someone who grew up in the Southern Baptist evangelical church, it brings up a lot of difficult emotions.

 

The church spaces I grew up in rewarded people pleasing. They rewarded those who were willing to put on a happy face and go through the motions required of such a religion. We were faithful to prayer, to purity, to reading the bible, to saving souls, and to smiling while we do it.

 

I grew up in a church with beautiful, kind people, but no one taught me to ask questions. No one taught me that things might not be as they seem, that God might be someone who gives room to really difficult questions.

 

So, I brought myself up with extrovert-like actions, a social butterfly who could buzz around with small talk and laughter, but who earnestly longed for quiet conversations with big questions over hot cups of coffee.

 

As an adult, I’ve joined multitudes of others who are deconstructing their faith, and it’s difficult as hell.  The constant work of asking questions, of giving voice to doubts, seeing things that cannot be unseen– it is utterly exhausting, and positively necessary.

 

 

I'm not sure we spend enough time talking about how painful the process of deconstruction is.

 

 

The night before this last Easter Sunday, I watched old Easter videos online, triumphant productions with men’s quartets and choirs proclaiming that Christ is risen. I was laughing at the things I naively believed as a child, but I went to bed with a sense of mourning what was once such a simple faith that I no longer claim to have. I carried that grief into Easter morning, letting all my questions roll around inside me.

 

I didn’t wish people a Happy Easter. I thought about both what deconstruction has given to me and has taken from me. I thought about how my view of Jesus has changed so much throughout the years, and most of the time, I don’t know what to believe. 

 

Some weeks, we cry because things cannot be simple, the way they once were. Grief, doubt, and the realization that faith is complicated– it feels like it ruins everything, for all time, and we will never find peace in faith or religion ever again. It leaves us terrified of what the future terrain of faith looks like, an unknown land we do not understand and are not prepared for.

 

The days, months, years of deconstruction wane on and on, and most of the time, we are not content there. We are tired. We want something to reconstruct that will be better than what once was. 

 

Perhaps in these moments, we need to voice our questions to remember that we are not alone. This has held so much power in social media spaces, where we find friends outside our physical communities who are asking the same questions we are asking. When we say, “I have doubts, and they hurt, and I don’t know the way forward,” someone steps up beside us and says, “I had those questions too, and I’m still here.”

 

It doesn't mean healing is one straight path; on the contrary, we know that healing is a winding road that seems to have no destination. But it helps to know we aren't the only ones on the journey.

 

So my hope is that we talk about how hard deconstruction is, how difficult our questions are, that we can say out loud, “I miss the simplicity of a doubtless faith,” while listening to the poets and prophets of our time remind us that we cannot give up the work.

 

And just maybe what we realize along the way is that “the table is set and the door opened,” as Said says. We realize that both the doubtless, childlike faith and the wandering, weary, questioning faith lead us to a God who takes all of it and responds with fresh wind and rain, with sunsets and a few friends along the way.

And suddenly we realize, all these winding roads, all these roadmaps that seem to lead to nowhere, they actually lead us to the thing that has always been.

Love was always the destination. 

 

I am writing

because sometimes

we are closer to the truth

in our vulnerability

than in our safe certainties.

Rachel Held Evans

 

A Chemical Reaction of the Soul

chemical reaction: n. a chemical change that occurs when two or more substances combine to form a new substance.

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I’ll be the first to admit that I know little about chemistry.

But recently I had a conversation with my son about chemical reactions, how something as simple as baking a cake becomes a chemical reaction–because the cake can never go back to being flour, salt, sugar, or eggs. It has transformed.

Neither can my coffee, that is ground and immersed in water inside the coffee maker, go back to being the original bean again.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of deconstructing or decolonizing my faith.

I’ve written about it here, and if I stop with one piece, I’ve obviously missed the point.

About two years ago I had a conversation with a friend that ended in the realization that I am no longer the person I was in high school and college.

My perspectives on faith and the church have shifted, along with who I believe should be included and excluded in such matters.

It seems I’ve become someone else, but still hold in tact the original essence of who I’ve always been.

Is it possible to have a sort of chemical reaction of the soul? Is it possible that we transform so that we cannot be what we once were?

I believe that’s a healthier version of ourselves, and if we’re really honest, fighting transformation will leave us unhappy, missing out on new aspects of ourselves that are waiting to be discovered.

When we refuse to change, to evolve, to transform, we become stuck in only what we’ve known, because we’re scared to ask questions. But the question-asking, the wondering and wandering– it’s what helps those chemical reactions of the soul take place. All of those substances combine in us to bring transformation.

My coffee, steaming in my cup with cream and sugar, will never be a coffee bean again.

It has some sort of new purpose.

Just the same, my life journey today, seeking my Potawatomi identity and asking the American church how it can be better, is a version of myself that cannot forget what it has seen or go back to what it once was.

But the question-asking, the wondering and wandering-- it's what helps those chemical reactions of the soul take place. All of those substances combine in us to bring transformation.-2.png

If coffee transforms, so can we.

And each fall leaf,

every flower,

every bird’s egg that hatches,

each child that grows and matures,

a caterpillar that will become a butterfly,

every pumpkin pie or fortune cookie or veggie omelet–

a chemical reaction in the world, a transformation.

So if we aren’t who we were yesterday, and we’re not yet transformed into who we’ll be tomorrow, who are we today?

Maybe we simply ARE,

this transforming thing,

the cake that’s still in the oven,

the coffee that’s being ground.

Maybe we’re inside the middle of transformation, where it hurts a little, the caterpillar making its way toward the butterfly.

While we are in this cocoon, dreaming of who we’ll be, working toward it, we acknowledge that this space, right now, is necessary and good in the process, and we cannot skip it.

You and I are in the midst of our chemical reaction of the soul, and we cannot go back now.

The only way is forward,

and into glorious, unknown light.

Amen.