Sunday, March 6, 2016

On Being Bad at Christianity

People are often surprised by how little reverence I pay to the church. Especially when they learn I am a religious professional. How much reverence might I be expected to show? Honestly, at this point, any would be of note.

Doing so might help me appear a bit "more normal," to quote one of my colleagues who accused me of heresy for daring to suggest that physical cosmology just might be a thing. I could probably start by refraining from cracking frequent jokes about and openly mocking my own religious heritage. My unchurched, unaffiliated, areligious, not otherwise specified, "spiritual but not religious" friends seem to find me equally abnormal. In their case, however, my breaking with the traditional attitudes of a pastor makes me their favorite religious professional.

The thing is, it's really hard to revere the thing that promised to show me the way to salvation and nearly killed me instead. At this point, I imagine if I had a Jewish mother, I would hear her voice in my head, "Always so melodramatic!" I do not have a Jewish mother. My mother is less churched, less religious, less agnostic, and more prayerful than I am, to judge by her Facebook wall posts.

I make jokes and mock my religious heritage because I am deeply uncomfortable with my relationship to my religious heritage. Most especially the Evangelical part of it.

And I'm really not kidding when I tell you it almost killed me.  

I got involved with the Evangelicals when I went away to college. They seemed like rock stars to me. Too beautiful for words and so in touch with the appeal that sin holds while simultaneously being able to bear up under temptation and walk around, heads held high with all the moralistic superiority any 18-22 year old virgin who's never so much as looked at mind altering substances let alone actually seriously considered tasting even a drop of alcohol or tried a drag from a cigarette can muster.

The whole endeavor was filled with worship services and student meetings, conferences and retreats, where the coolest guy in the group led a band playing the latest Christian music, prayers that the Second Coming would happen NOW, and speakers who promised that the reward for all our hard work, sincere worship, and abstinence was that God would absolutely give us the desires of our hearts. It was like something out of a Hollywood movie. (Saved! resonates with so many people for a reason).

For a fat, socially awkward, depressed girl who came from poverty and abuse of all kinds, this seemed like the deliverance I needed. Of course I wanted to be a part of that crowd! It didn't matter that I was never going to fit in with them. If I worked really hard and did everything right and stayed on the narrow path and refrained from sinning, I would finally be deemed good enough, worthy, valued.

The key was to be the perfect Christian. The only way to be a good person was to be a good Christian. If you weren't a good Christian, not only were you not good person, you ceased to be a person at all. Instead, you were a moveable object, a living mission field, a soul to be saved!

I swallowed it all and began treating myself, my friends, my family accordingly. I preached the Gospel and prayed fervently, and tried very hard to be very good. And while I never believed myself to be self-righteous, I was certainly one of the righteous. I didn't judge anyone! I mourned for them, that they hadn't yet met Jesus, started that all important relationship, and had their lives transformed.

I lived like this for almost 10 years. And in that time I punished myself brutally for every mistake or perceived sin. "I just thought that man was attractive! I'm lusting! I must confess my sins and pray that Jesus takes this thorn of lust from my side and heals me of the wickedness in my heart! God forgive me! I cannot do it on my own!" And I would weep for the repugnant thing I was.

I continued to hold out hope that I might one day become perfect and earn my place among the "good Christians" who were the only people who were subjects rather than objects.

Then I ended up at the most liberal seminary in the United States and things started to change. Suddenly, I was surrounded by honest, loving, good, faithful, and unbelievably kind Christians and people of other faiths who were doing all kinds of "sinful" things. While I was pretty sure they weren't going to hell, no matter how much pot they were smoking or sex they were having, I still wasn't sure I could do any of those things and escape the wrath of God.

So, I held on, desperately, to this faith that promised I would be given my heart's desire as a reward for my faithfulness.

Except it didn't happen that way. Midway through my studies, heartbroken, alone, and disappointed, at the age of 26, I had sex for the first time.

I fell immediately into a suicidal depression. If I was no longer a virgin, I was no longer a good Christian. If I was no longer a good Christian, I wasn't...anybody. I lost my entire identity along with my virginity.

And I couldn't deal with it. I spent two weeks on the psychiatric unit of one of the top ten hospitals in the nation while the doctors tried to get a "therapeutic" level of anti-depressants in my system and the psychiatric medical resident told me my only real problem was that I was too hard on myself.

When I got out, I immediately returned to my Evangelical church.

It was a source of constant reassurance that I would never be enough. Lest I dare forget, my sins were ever before me and held up on Sunday mornings as proof of my depravity and utter need for their Jesus. I was not a virgin. I love LGBTQ identified individuals and believe they are human and have as much right to access God and the government as anyone else. I feel and believe the same things about women and dare to imagine I just might have value outside of my reproductive capacities.

When I left the Evangelical church 6 years ago, I was fleeing for my life! I was desperate to get out and build a new life and a new faith for myself. And I did. I began living in accordance with my values rather than theirs. And I am happy.

But I still look back on my time among Evangelicals with longing. I mourn something of the faith I rejected. While life was awesome and terrible as an Evangelical, it was also simple. Everything was black and white; good or bad. No shades of gray; no ambiguities. I was a good person because I followed the rules. I prayed for your soul because you didn't follow the rules, you couldn't be a good person.

I am ashamed that I miss anything from that tradition. I feel like a victim of domestic violence who looks back on her relationship wistfully because every once in a while, he was so sweet and I hoped that moment would last forever; I knew that moment would last forever if I were just good enough.

I still want to be (maybe not perfect, so much but surely) a good person. Figuring out what that means, now, is much harder and far more personal. There is a greater chance of messing it up.

Recently, in a moment of needing to connect again with some of the brainier Christians I knew from that time, I attended a bible study. The leader shared with us her frustration as a mother with a "problematic" teenage daughter, though she didn't clarify what problems they were having. "I did everything right," she declared. "We were virgins when we got married, we attend church every week, we tithe!"

I had had sex with my boyfriend, with whom I live, just that morning. I know I have done nothing sinful in loving this man, but the judgment was there.

I am bad at being a Christian. I spent a decade of my life apologizing to Jesus for being so bad.

In many ways, I am not what a religious professional "should" be. But I no longer apologize to Jesus and I no longer confess my sins and seek a word of forgiveness from other Evangelicals.

Instead, I find myself apologizing to the unchurched, the agnostic, the "spiritual not religious." I find myself apologizing for taking them by surprise, for defying their expectations, for not being a better Christian. I find myself offering ironic apologies for not trying to bring them to God while never considering that I might be a bigger impediment on their life's journey - wherever it may take them - than their "sin" ever was or ever could be.

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