The Wilderness of Church

The damage done to me by the religion of my upbringing only began to surface in my memory over the past year or two. By reading about the experiences of my other exvangelical peers, I realized that I, too, had been led on and manipulated by a church that I thought was my home. Until recently, I had never thought of myself as a part of the exvangelical community. I still wouldn’t describe the church I grew up in as evangelical, as it was mainline Methodist in many ways. However, many of the teachings, particularly in my youth group years, were full of evangelical beliefs.

Growing up, some of these beliefs were naturally repugnant to me. The church’s stance on LGBTQ people, for example, was something I’d always bristled at. The language was never violent, but it was definitely a “love the sinner, hate the sin” type of theology. It turns out I was a closeted baby bisexual the whole time (surprise!), which explains a lot of the inner conflict I felt around the teachings. Other aspects of the evangelical teachings of my home church, though, stuck with me, even through my college years. I read every book by John and Stacey Elderidge, a couple who notoriously writes about relationships that are sustained by strict gender norms. Really, all you need to know is that on the home page of their website, the scrolling information touts taglines like “Battle, Beauty, Adventure: What makes men come alive?” and “Beautiful, Pursued, Irreplaceable: What makes women come alive?” barf. As I entered my first romantic relationships, I thought I was meant to be pursued by men, and if I wasn’t being pursued, it was because I wasn’t offering enough of an allure. I specifically remember requiring my boyfriend during my freshman year of college to meet me at the top of the stairs in my dorm, literally making him go on a physical “adventure” just to say hello to me. I thought this would keep our relationship alive. Add to these relationship standards my belief in the teachings of purity culture, thinking for decades that my worth was proportional to my virginity, and you can imagine how all of this distorted my self worth.

I spent a lot of energy in seminary deconstructing these beliefs about myself and my place in the world. I was liberated from my concept of a privileged, male, white god and was introduced to the God of the oppressed. For once, this felt like a God who understood me – a queer woman. Religion finally felt like a thing that encompassed me and not a box I had to force myself into. But as I began life after seminary, the United Methodist Church was falling apart around me. Not even a month after graduating, I went to General Conference 2016 and witnessed my church’s inability to confirm my full humanity. Though I was still in the closet at the time, I knew I was bisexual and I had many queer friends from seminary who were doing incredible things in ministry. However, it was going to take more than one conference to disillusion me.

After being commissioned as a Provisionary Deacon, I started a job working with people experiencing homelessness. With each step toward ordination, though, I struggled time and time again to fit my creative, nontraditional ministry into the guidelines set by the church. After several years of this, I thought it best to go on leave from my ordination process and consider if and how I could best do the ministry to which I felt called. Then, at beginning of my second year of leave just a few months ago, I watched my church tighten restrictions even further on LGBTQ clergy and relationships. With one foot out the door already, I was angry and hurt by an institution that I had once been so determined to make better.

I am still angry. I am saddened as I watch all of my friends from my ordination class get approved for full ordination. If I had stayed on schedule, I would be getting ordained this summer with them. Instead though, I sit in the wilderness wondering if I wasted three years of my life getting a degree that I will never be allowed to officially use in the church of my childhood. I wonder if the grass is greener on the other side in another denomination and I wonder if all of this trouble is worth the pain anymore.

This wilderness is lonely but I’ve been here before. The deconstruction of faith is heartbreaking but necessary for the forming of a new and better thing. I am inspired while I watch many of my queer siblings and allies fight for change, but I know that I can’t do that work myself anymore. I am tired, disillusioned, and confused. It feels like so many things are broken, but the church has historically been broken many times. For now, I wait on God to see what she’s up to in the next promised land.

Being a Queer Methodist, February 2019

This photo is from my commissioning in 2016. I was living in the closet and unemployed. Despite my lack of direction and continual anxiety about my identity, I was overjoyed. As the bishop laid his hands on my shoulders, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. Long years of reflection, study, and discernment came together. I felt empowered. I felt like my church believed in me. It felt like coming home.

However, as my three years as a provisional member wore on, I felt more and more conflicted. In fact, this photo might represent the most at home I’ve ever felt in the Methodist Church. I grew up Methodist and have never belonged to any other denomination. My commissioning was the pinnacle of all I had worked for, all I believed the church should be, and all I believed I should be. But it’s been downhill from there.

Some of the ways I’ve started to grow apart from the UMC are due to the structure doesn’t work well for the type of ministry I want to do. This is more of a logistical issue than a personal one. I am not personally hurt by the fact that Methodist polity doesn’t seem to line up well with my ministry vision. It’s akin to a romantic relationship that would be better as a friendship. I’m not angry about it, I just think I might fit better elsewhere. So, it is with one foot already out the door that I witness General Conference 2019.

When I came out as bisexual last July, I assumed I would receive backlash from the church. I’ve received none, which can be partially attributed to the fact that I’m in a relationship with a cis, straight man. I am “self avowed” but not “practicing,” so my aberrance is marginal. Despite the fact that I have received little official feedback about my coming out, I know that, depending on the results of this conference, I could readily be asked to leave. Technically, I’m not allowed to be commissioned, even before GC 2019. Technically, my collar should go back in the drawer and my certificate should come off the wall. But, in my opinion, God is not overly concerned with technicalities.

I’m spending the next few days watching a live stream of primarily cis, straight people deciding if I can continue to be a part of this church in the way I planned to be. Truthfully, I am exhausted by the constant avoidance of the UMC to actually make a decision about inclusion. We’ve been having the same argument for a decade and yet all we’ve managed to do so far is make another committee. Despite the fact that this is comically stereotypical, I wish we would just get it over with. Part of me is grateful for the grace and care with which the church leadership is attempting to make this decision, but part of me is frustrated by the kid gloves everyone is wearing. This decision is going to hurt whether or not we take two years to think about it. I am tired of “praying our way forward.” I don’t think prayer can fix this. We don’t need more time to sit in a room in pray. We need to get our own house in order so we can go back out into the world and send love into what are currently some really broken places.

I spend each day working with people experiencing homelessness, trying to get ID’s and birth certificates for them so they can go back to work and get housing, listening to their painful stories, and holding space for them. I will continue to do this whether or not the Methodist church wants me to do this in their name. I believe it is holy work and I believe God is in it whether or not I’m straight. I struggle often between my high church beliefs in the value of structure and my thoughts that God works far beyond our made-up systems. I don’t know how to hold my conflicting thoughts about the Church all at once, but I do know that all of us deserve a place in it.

So, what do we do with a church that has become just as injured, maybe even more so than the world around it? I don’t know. I think there’s value in an imperfect church because I spent so much of my early childhood thinking that church was a place where I had to be my most perfect self. But I also believe the church should be a place of safety, something I can rely on when my mental illness overwhelms me or when I feel burnt out by the pain I bear witness to in my work. I don’t want to be charged with doing the emotional work for an organization that supposed to be offering me healing and rest. I think there is far too little individual work being done. Before we can address racism, sexism, and homophobia as the UMC, we have to address our individual biases. This is hard work, harder than praying while secretly believing God thinks the same thing that you do.

I don’t know where we will be this time next week, and I am terrified. I’m worried I wasted 3 years and thousands of dollars getting a degree I won’t be allowed use. I’m afraid that I am going to watch my family fall apart and that it will be all my fault. I don’t feel safe in an organization that has been a giant part of my spiritual and personal formation, and I am tired of my personhood being debated. I don’t want to pray about it anymore. I just want to be allowed to come home.

Why I Stopped Shaving

header image: Cathyrox

When I was in the seventh grade, I couldn’t wait to shave my legs for the first time. Despite the fact that my leg hair was still blonde and whispy, I knew that many of my peers had smooth legs and I wanted them too. Shaving seemed like something intensely personal that I needed to discuss only in whispers. The day I set aside to shave for the first time, I told a friend at school that I was excited to get home from school that day. When she asked why I replied, “I just am.” Shaving had the mysticism of sex combined with the taboo of menstruation, at least in my mind. It was something women did but never talked about.

It wasn’t until high school that I first began to question why it was that I was required to shave off my body hair. I went the whole winter of junior year without shaving my legs, wearing pants each day. My high school boyfriend asked me when I would start shaving my legs again, and I asked him why it mattered, since no one could see them. “Because I like your legs and I want to see them,” he said. I think he genuinely meant it as a compliment, but, thinking back, it makes me feel gross. This interaction solidified my growing suspicion that shaving was an activity that women did for men, not for themselves, and that, if I was going to be considered attractive by the opposite sex, then I better keep shaving. A few weeks later, when the weather started to warm up, I did shave my legs again, eager to reveal them to my boyfriend from their hairy, wintry prison.

Despite a short period of weird grunge in high school when I wore only boys pants, I’ve always presented as highly feminine. I like makeup, wearing skirts, and the color pink. So, I followed the script set by the women before me. Every day I would shave under my arms and several times per week I would shave my legs. Throughout years of knicks, razor burn, and Nair mishaps, it never occurred to me that I could just NOT do it anymore.

Every summer, I spend several days in Hot Springs, NC at the Wild Goose Festival. Two years ago, I met a fellow queer woman at the festival and noticed her armpit hair. I had always assumed that, if I grew out my body hair, I would look disgusting and mannish. However, this woman was beautiful and I thought her body hair only added to her ~*Earth Goddess Aesthetic*~. I doubted I was cool enough to pull it off, but I stopped shaving my armpits at Wild Goose that year, partially because I usually don’t shower during the 3 day outdoor festival, but this year I continued my no-shave experiment when I got home. Two years later, and the experiment is still going. It wasn’t as though I made a dramatic decision on a specific principle. I just stopped shaving and never started again. I found that it didn’t make me look gross like I thought it would, and, if anything, it made my armpits healthier. No razor bumps, no burning when I put on deodorant after a shower, no irritation when I run in a tank top. Essentially, my laziness turned into feminst rebellion and self-confidence.

My decision to stop shaving my legs was similarly unremarkable. During some medication changes last fall, my depression was particularly bad, and I decided to give everything in my room with which I could harm myself to my roommates as a safety measure. One of the things I gave them was my razor. After a few weeks, I was feeling better and asked for my things back. However, my leg hair had already sprouted, plus it was November, so I decided to let it grow. This week, for the first time since I was 12, I wore a skirt with fully grown leg hair, and I loved it. I could FEEL THE WIND. At first, I thought something was on my leg and I kept looking down, but I eventually realized what I was feeling was the natural little feelers sticking out of my calves.

I’m not trying to tell everyone to stop shaving. I don’t care what you do with your own body hair as long as it’s making you happy. Middle school me was pumped to have smooth legs. It made me feel glories. But adult me is tired of spending time in the shower removing hair and wasting plastic. I’m tired of men and capitalism telling me how my body should be. But if shaving is what makes you feel like an empowered super-lady, do your thing, girl. Shaving is a personal decision. Maybe my 12-year-old self was onto something. Removing body hair is intimate. It can be seasonal like cycles of the moon. It can be empowering. And it can be painful. Do what gives you power, and do it because you owe your body the best you can give Her.

My Word for 2019 is Brave

I’ve never chosen a word of the year before. Honestly, it always sounded a little bit corny. I feel the same way about making New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s feels like a tired joke about how Americans are terrible about following through. I have a love-hate relationship with New Year’s – I love the concept of new beginnings and fresh starts but I hate the ways we’ve turned it into a method of being dissatisfied with who we are and how we’re living.

This year, though, I decided to try the PowerSheets goal setting planner for the first time (I promise this isn’t an ad…stay with me). I’ve seen other successful women use it and love it, and I currently have a lot of dreams but need some help making them happen. Plus, I’m a sucker for a good planner, especially one with stickers. Part of the PowerSheets process is choosing a word of the year. Ideally, it’s something that can serve as an umbrella for all your goals and plans.

I looked at all the threads I was weaving together as I dreamed up my 2019. I want to be more intentional: about money, about food, about zero waste, about minimalism. I want to continue my recovery from perfectionsim. I want to take risks even if it means things don’t work out as planned. I want to keep journeying through my trauma toward healing. I want to work towards getting published. I want to clarify my vocational goals. I have a lot to manage, but a lot of it seems to come down to progress over perfection. I can spend the next year wishing that things were different or I can take actual steps toward making things happen. (I’m using a lot of PowerSheets language here…sorry y’all.) After choosing goals and focusing my priorities, bravery seemed like the thing I would need most.

At the end of 2018, I needed a lot of bravery. Politically, autumn was full of triggers of my own experiences. I had to attend an event where my abuser would be present and had to make an emergency mental health plan. Changes in my medication had me feeling less stable than I had in nearly a decade. After Thanksgiving, I took a week off from work because of an intense relapse of depression that nearly had me checking myself into the hospital. Changes at work meant I would be starting 2019 with only 1 coworker out of the 3 I usually have (and running a whole nonprofit is hard enough with only 4 of us). I did not feel ready to take on new things. But as I reflect on what all of the turmoil that the end of last year taught me, it was nothing if not bravery.

Bravery to be honest with my boss about my mental health. Bravery to speak out with my doctor about how I was reacting to my medication. Bravery to work through my memories and flashbacks with my therapist. Bravery to ask friends to come sit with me when I couldn’t be alone. Even though I’ve largely come out of the darkness that was the past few months, I still need this bravery.

I also need bravery to give myself permission to take breaks from all this goal setting – to watch TV and relax when I’m so worn out that my insides feel like sandpaper. Sometimes, I become all consumed with my new goal setting habits and feel guilty when I spend my evenings doing anything but working toward my goals. But balance is absolutely necessary. Spontenaity is necessary. Breathing is necessary. I’m still struggling to manage my time in a way that combines both working toward my goals and resting. I have to keep reminding myself that I was doing some intense healing just a few weeks ago. Being brave is both big and small and I can’t wait to see what it brings me.

Purity Rings & Other Lies

I was 13 when I put on my first purity ring.  It was silver and read “TRUE LOVE WAITS” in small block letters.  I loved that ring.  It was a symbol of my faith, my loyalty, my ability to perfectly follow the rules, and my worth.  I’ve always been a sucker for following the rules.  As Monica from Friends would say, “The rules control the fun!”  I loved the rules.  The rules shaped who I was.

I looked forward each year to the “sex talk” we were privy to at youth group.  All of the girls were hearded in one room and all the boys corralled into another.  The boys were lectured on the dangers of porn and masturbation.  The girls were told that sex would be magical if we would only wait until we found our one true soulmate, married him (always him – it was also heteronormative), and then had sex for the first time on our wedding night.  I looked forward to this weird, predictable litany because it reminded me every year that I was doing what I needed to do in order to be a “good Christian.”  I thought God would love me more if I followed the rules.  And every year I was reminded that I could check off another box on my Heaven Checklist.

What I didn’t see was how unequipped I actually was for a relationship.  We spent so much time talking about purity that I never thought to ask any questions about conflict resolution, loving communication, or how hard it is to try to understand the inside of someone else’s brain.  I thought that if I waited for my soulmate, everything would be perfect.  There would be no need for communication skills because I had saved my body for my one true love and that meant nothing would be able to tear us apart.  Everything would be perfect.

It turns out that relationships are SUPER HARD.  Even good, healthy relationships are (one more time for the people in the back) SUPER HARD.  I love my partner.  He’s the most kind and understanding person, and I know that we love each other deeply, but there are still times when we want to strangle each other.  We’ve had to learn how to ask for what we need, how to use “I feel” statements so that we aren’t constantly accusing each other, and how to talk through a conflict to arrive at the seed that it was really about.  I never learned how to do any of this in the church.  I had no idea that I needed to learn it.

Even more concerning is how my purity culture upbringing did not teach us about rape culture.  If anything, it perpetuated it.  First, the fact that we learned about our sexualities in gender separated rooms should really say more than enough.  The inherent belief that men have an unquenchable sex drive and women just want to be told they look pretty is the root of rape culture.  By learning about sexuality as a whole community, we could have fostered some of the communication piece we were so desperately missing.  Purity culture also taught me nothing about how to communicate what I want – whether I want to have sex or not, what to do if I don’t want to have sex, and what to do if I’m forced to have sex I don’t want to have.  It was presumed that all sex within marriage would be consensual.  (Hot tip: it’s not.)  There will be times that your spouse or partner wants sex and you do not and if you don’t know how to navigate that, it will be damaging.  

Furthermore, saving myself for marriage meant saving myself from all sexual encounters, even those that are unwelcomed.  There is an element of victim blaming in purity culture that is more than disturbing.  While it was never spelled out this clearly, it was only logical for me to presume that rape only happened to women who were actually asking for it – their clothes were slutty or they were drunk or they had been sexually active before.  All of these things fell under the category of not saving oneself, and that essentially negated assault as a possibility.  Being assaulted destroyed purity just as much as having sex with a high school boyfriend.  No matter what the situation, it was all the woman’s fault.

Purity culture has damaged so many relationships.  I’ve watched friends get married at 20 to avoid having sex before marriage only to get divorced a few years later.  I’ve watched women endure physical therapy well into their marriages to teach their vaginas to actually enjoy sex without pain.  I’ve watched people be exiled from their faith communities because of premarital pregnancy – planned or unplanned.  I’ve watched members of the LGBTQ community hide for decades (myself included) because of the heteronormativatiy preached within purity culture.  Purity culture hurts all of us.

I threw away my teenage purity ring long ago, but when I found out about Nadia Bolz-Weber’s plan for a vagina statue, I bought an identical ring on Amazon to throw in the fire.  If I’ve learned anything in my exodus from purity culture, it’s that we need to burn it to the ground and resurrect the ways we teach our children about their bodies.  Because if we want the next generations to fix this broken world, they first have to learn how to love themselves, their bodies, and their peers.  Following the rules will not do this for them, just like it didn’t do it for me.  Rings are easy.  Love is hard.

Mental Health is Not a Straight Line

*tw*: depression, anxiety, sexual assault, abuse, self-harm

I hate the process of getting somewhere.  When I’m traveling, I hate driving for long periods because I feel like I’m wasting time when I could be accomplishing something.  Flying makes me anxious, and even though it’s faster, I hate the concept that I have to arrive so early before my flight just to sit in the airport and do nothing.  I love traveling when I get to where I’m going.  I love exploring new restaurants, seeing new sights, and doing things I haven’t done before.  But it’s the process of getting there that makes me uncomfortable.

For a long time, I felt the same way about my mental health.  Once I overcame an issue after a prolonged period of suffering, I thought I was done.  I could check it off the list because I had overcome it.  In high school, I had problems with self-harm, and once I stopped self-harming, I thought I was done with it.  I was proud of myself for overcoming an obstacle and moving forward.  I thought I’d never have to worry about it again.  But mental health recovery doesn’t work like that.  There are good days and there are bad days.  Our negative patterns tend to show back up in difficult times.  Recovering addicts probably know this the best, and the fact that they use the phrase “recovery” to describe their process shows a much deeper self-awareness than my own.  Recovery is a process, not a checklist.

Things have been difficult lately.  I’m still figuring out what the proper medications are for my anxiety, and because I also have a history of depression, it’s proving more difficult than I expected to find an anxiety medication that doesn’t also trigger my depression.  I’m working with my doctor to figure out what prescription will be best for me, but it’s essentially a trial and error process.  Also, our current news cycle hasn’t been any help, triggering memories and fears surrounding my own experience of sexual assault.  I didn’t spend nearly enough time processing these feelings, which resulted in a breakdown during my therapy session last week, after which my therapist wouldn’t let me leave until I had a friend to meet me at home to make sure I was okay.  (Overwhelmingly grateful for my therapist and my friends in that moment.)  Because I’m a perfectionist, I rarely let people see me at my most vulnerable.  I don’t like for people to see me cry, so asking for help in that moment was a big step.

I’m also supposed to be training for a marathon that’s happening the first weekend in November, but I’m not sure whether or not I’ll be able to run it.  I sprained my ankle (for the millionth time) at the beginning of August and just started coming back from that injury a few weeks ago.  I had some calf and shin issues while getting back into training because my left leg wasn’t used to the strain, so I’m incredibly behind on training.  Injuries combined with mental health struggles, not to mention that I’m now battling a cold, mean I haven’t trained past 12 miles.  I ran a marathon earlier this year, so I might not die if I tried to run this one, but it definitely wouldn’t be what I had hoped.  I can’t stand this because I didn’t run as fast as I had hoped when I ran the Nashville Rock ‘n Roll marathon earlier this year, so I chose Savannah (a super flat and easy course) to redeem myself and try to PR (run my best time).  But now, I’m facing whether or not I can even complete this marathon.

All this to say, things have been in a downward spiral lately.  My depression and anxiety have caused me to spend a lot more time sitting in my room not exercising, making strange meal choices (i.e. cereal for dinner like every day), not cleaning my house, and not getting things done.  Without my routine, I get even more depressed and anxious, so you can see how this spirals out of control pretty quickly.  I haven’t been moving toward my goals.  I haven’t been checking things off of my to-do list.  Heck, I haven’t even put on make up most days to go to work.  But it’s important for me to remember that these things don’t make me a failure.  I’ve made it through times like this before and I can make it again.  I made it through an intense bout of depression in high school.  I made it through the aftermath of being sexually assaulted.  I made it through breaking up with someone I had dated for 5 years only to realize he was emotionally abusive.  I made it through coming out.  I am strong, and sometimes strength looks a little different than we expect.

Right now, it looks like managing to eat several times per day, remembering to wash my face, going to bed at a decent time, drinking water, and taking my meds.  Eventually, it might look like running a marathon again or striving toward getting more pieces published.  Being mentally healthy isn’t a straight line forward, so I have to remember to celebrate the small victories along the way.