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.

GUEST POST: Who the heck am I, anyway?

I recently had the pleasure of getting to know Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass through the magic of Twitter.  A friend of mine asked if anyone she knew was doing work around #metoo and #churchtoo, and I immediately responded that I had done some writing on #metoo.  She connected me to Chrisie, who is doing some wonderful truth-telling, empowering work.  Chrisie and I immediately connected over being type 1’s on the Enneagram as well as our spirit animal, Leslie Knope.  We immediately decided to guest blog for each other.  You can find my post on her blog here.  Enjoy these words from Chrisie on the paradoxes of identity, realizing trauma, and self-discovery.

Growing up I thought that I would have life figured out by age 30. I would have a job, family, and know who I am and who I want to be. As I approach yet another birthday in my thirties, I now think that who I am and who I want to be is a fluid concept. Recently I have been reflecting on Psalm 139 and realized that I don’t really know myself as well as God does. In fact, in the last few months I haven’t been sure I even know myself at all. I find myself in a similar time of rebirth and discovery that I experienced in my early 20s.

I’m a 31-year-old pastor, mother, survivor, wife, advocate, and redhead. But am I more than those labels? Less? Confused? Lost? Can I accept the aspects of myself that I love and ignore the parts that I dislike or make me feel vulnerable? Is this how I want God to love me?

In the winter I discerned that God was calling me to embrace parts of my person that I have hid or shied away from. Most of life I have felt confused by who I am. I seem like mismatched pieces, incongruent and paradoxical parts smashed into one body. I love Star Wars but hate science fiction and fantasy, with the exception of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I can ride roller coasters all day, but I am afraid of fast cars. I am an extreme extrovert, but I can read quietly for days at a time. I am ethically against divorce, but I have been divorced. I love pretty things, but I hate clothes shopping. I’m an incredibly strong and independent woman, but I ask my husband to fill up my gas tank.

I thought I had myself all figured out prior to this year and prided myself on my self-awareness and introspection. And maybe I did know myself, and simply grew and changed in the last year. It’s entirely possible as I had a baby and changed churches and roles from associate to solo pastor. God’s sudden call for me to expand my ministry and identity felt like I lost myself at best, a betrayal by God at worst. I argued with God and cried in the middle of the night. I didn’t know who I was outside of my call to ministry and I narrowly defined what ministry was. God did not. I wasn’t ashamed of my past, but I didn’t really share it for a variety of reasons. I didn’t want people to look at me with pity, I hated how people would see me differently knowing I had been a ‘victim’ of domestic violence and sexual assault, and I never wanted to hear “God is going to do amazing things with you, because of your past.” Why that statement made me crazy is a whole other blog post for another day, but I separated my ministry from my story, and I wanted it that way.

God knows every thought and every part of who we are. I believe that God is calling us as disciples to be on a constant journey to know ourselves. The good and the bad. The good so we can embrace it and the bad so that God can redeem it. A strange thing happened with I started to write and reclaim my WHOLE story. I felt more like myself than I had in a very long time. I found myself, when I didn’t even know that I had been missing. I found that if I went too many days without writing I felt anxious and separated from the Divine. Once I started rediscovering myself, I couldn’t stop. I got new glasses, launched a website, wrote a book, and dyed my red hair blonde. I joked that I was going through a quarter-life crisis, but I was lovingly reminded that I’m a little too old for it to be a quarter-life crisis.

In my self-discovery, I rediscovered the beauty of God. I fell in love with my Creator in a deeper way, because I had a deeper understanding of my own heart and life and who I am created to be. God already knows all that I am, have been, will be, and could be. The beautiful and the ugly. In my teens I thought I would know who I was in my 30s and in my 30s, I now believe that I will never fully know myself, and that’s a good thing, because I am evolving and learning. The good news is that God knows and loves me, even when I don’t know who I am, because God is the I Am.

About Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass:

Chrisie grew up in Eastern New Mexico and West Texas and is the daughter of a minister and schoolteacher. She went to college at the University of Texas at El Paso and studied Clinical Health Psychology and English and American Literature, where she graduated in 2011. Throughout her college years, Chrisie worked at various churches as and served as everything from an intern to a youth director to a children’s director.

Chrisie then attended Duke Divinity School from 2011-2014 where she received her Master’s of Divinity. She is currently an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church serving in the South Carolina Annual Conference as the pastor at Gilbert United Methodist Church. In 2012 she married Rev. Weston Pendergrass, who is also a United Methodist minister in South Carolina. They adopted a beautiful and curious baby boy in 2016.

Chrisie is a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault and suffered from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during her seminary career. She is now a fierce advocate for women and women’s issues in the church and understanding of mental health and better mental health care available for all persons. Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass is available to come and speak at churches and events on these topics.

 

 

Making a Home

I hate moving.  I don’t like change.  I like routines, stability, consistency.  I wish I could stay in my little shoebox apartment, but my rent is going up and I can’t afford it.  Within the next month, I have no choice but to move to a new home.

The things I’m going to miss about my current living space don’t exactly make sense.  I’m not going to miss the occassional roaches or millipedes.  I won’t miss not having a dishwasher.  I also won’t miss the lack of central heating and air.  Most of all, I’ll enjoy not having my power go out every time it storms (thanks, Candler Park).  But I will miss the four mile loop I run each day on the Beltline.  I’ll miss the people I see every morning on my walk to the train – a family with two elementary aged kids walking to school, a family that got a new puppy several months ago that has now grown into a full sized dog, a girl who rides her bike to school and once told me she liked my shirt.  I’ll miss the Kroger where I shop.  I’ll miss my neighbors.

Recently, I got teary eyed just thinking about moving, and I was embarrassed at my emotions.  I’ve only lived in this apartment for two years, and I haven’t always loved it.  It has its kinks.  There are times I wished I could move out.  I’m also not moving far.  I’m staying in the same city, so the area I live in is one I could easily visit any time.  Even so, I’ve grown unavoidably nostalgic about leaving my little corner of the city.

Every day at work, I’m baffled by the ability of humans to make a home in any situation.  I see guests with systems of suitcases that hold their belongings.  I see others with a daily routine – washing their face in our sink, putting on perfume, going to a prayer meeting.  When I pass the areas where our guests live, I bear witness to encampments made of cardboard, tarps, and blankets.  Some use old cardboard and milk crates to make a night stand.  Others use found wooden pallets as a mattress.  Humans do not deserve to be cast aside like this, but I cannot help admiring their ability to make a home in the worst of circumstances.

We desire to have a space that is ours, a space of comfort, organization, routine, and safety.  This desire is so strong that it grants us the ability to make even the worst of conditions into the best home we can manage.

I am privileged.  I have never experienced homelessness or even come close, so in this way my moving woes seem small.  However, I think we all experience a sense of mourning when we have to leave what is familiar and safe in order to make a new nest elsewhere.  I love my little nest, but I have made new ones before.  In my adult life, I moved to college, lived in Costa Rica, spent summers outside of Ashville, moved to Charlotte, and finally landed in Atlanta.  While I was not used to moving as a child, having only moved once with my family before heading to college, I have had my share of transitions over the past ten years.  I know that I will make a new home where I land, but that doesn’t make the uprooting any easier.  For now, I’ll smile broadly as I pass strangers on their way to the bus stop who will never know how much I treasure our silent relationship.

why did you stay?

why did you stay?

He grabbed
my waist
and told me
he liked my lip ring,
and then kissed it.

I said,
“no, please,
just come lay with me.”
I wore a white comforter,
and we held hands
on the couch
at 6:30
on a Sunday morning.

A train when by
the window
and he ordered me
around the bedroom
in a way that
I mistook for
romance.

He left
granola out on the table
for me,
and honey.
“You’ve overcome
so much,”
he said.

He held
me in his lap
and I touched
his sweaty neck
while he exhaled
and told me his secrets.

He told me
my writing
reminded him of
a certain British philosopher.

I misunderstood,
“I know we
should
let this go, but I
still
want to kiss
you.”

I saw a
pink hair tie
on his nightstand
but
excused it for
a rubberband.

The man before him
told me that I couldn’t
wear tight pants
or make up
because other men
would look at me,
so this kind of violence
seemed more romantic.

I am used to
lies,
and his, at least, came with
honey on his hands when
he held me down,
sticky sweetness on his lips when
he said,

“No wonder this is so hard for you.”