It may seem as though that last chapter was a bit of a detour, but the holiness standards played a huge role in my decision to leave that church, only not in the way you might imagine. It started with a Bible study that I was teaching to a young girl who had just started coming to the church. We were moving along nicely, and then one day she asked me why women have to dress the way they do. By this time I had been attending the church for eleven years, and I thought I knew the answer to that question. I pulled out all of the verses in the Bible that we used to justify the standards, but she just looked at me blankly. In that moment I heard my own voice trying to convince myself. I split in half like a big ripe watermelon dropped on the sidewalk and there was a part of me that asked the questions with her. Wet black seeds of doubt spread out all over the place.
There are many obstacles to really encountering God. For instance, God is not easily figured out...you can't describe him in five sentences or less. He's filled with seeming contradictions. For most people this is something they will need to wrestle with. We like our god's to be predictable and comfortable. This is an obstacle that is built into the very fabric of what it means to actually enter into a relationship with God (or anyone else for that matter.) I can't do anything about that. I can't remove that for you so you'll have an easier go of it. But there are other obstacles to God that are synthetic in nature...we make them up. Mostly they're about giving us shortcuts to figure out who's in and who's out. We don't like the ambiguity and hard work of having to figure out what's under a person's skin, so we come up with all of these elaborate ways to signal membership and character. It's pretty slick too. We can size one another up very quickly without running the risk of getting to know one another and listening and possibly being affected by one another. These are the kinds of obstacles that we have some say-so over. We can spend our time constructing them or we can get busy tearing them down.
So I began to deconstruct this wall. After spending about a year and a half asking questions and praying like a madwoman, I went out and bought a pair of jeans. It was my declaration. It said, "I'm not playing anymore." It was a visible challenge. This is when the busted-up watermelon got really messy and sticky and impossible to clean up. One by one I violated every one of those standards. I began to wear the faintest little bit of makeup. I bought a simple silver bracelet. I cut my hair just a little bit. You might be thinking that the process of shedding some of this unnecessary weight would be freeing and fun. It wasn't. This was a grueling spiritual discipline that was made all the more miserable because of the deep misunderstandings it created. I was doing this out of integrity and obedience to the voice of God, but most of my friends and mentors believed exactly the opposite. They assumed I was just being selfish and immature. They were afraid of me. They stopped talking to me. I became a walking wound with pain and confusion seeping out of every pore. I seriously wished I was dead.
After about six months of this I noticed something that gave me the courage to leave. A pattern began to emerge that woke me up. I would go to church and suffer through a bunch of judgment and isolation and misery. I would leave almost every service with a migraine (it really hurts to have a watermelon split open inside you) and the feeling that I was most certainly going to have a heart attack. Then I would go home, lay down in my bed with the covers over my head, and I would pray. And every single time I did this, God would pick me up and rock me like a baby and say things like, "I'm really sorry, honey. I love you so much." It was that same warm, loving presence from when I was a little girl. He also came to me in the form of my husband, who listened to all my questions and walked with me through all of this sorrow and uncertainty and put himself at risk to defend me. He even came up with a few questions of his own. After a while the pattern spoke to me in no uncertain terms that the grief I was receiving over there did not originate from God, and I knew it was time to go.
When I let everyone know that I was leaving, the pastor of the church showed up at my door. My youngest son was struggling with asthma at the time and I was in the middle of preparing a nebulizer treatment for him. The medication for the nebulizer comes in these tiny glass vials that you have to snap in half so that you can pour the contents into the machine. My hands were shaking so badly that I couldn't break open the vial. I listened with one ear to all of this man's defenses and threats and with the other ear I listened to God. I finally snapped off the top of the vial and sat my little boy down and placed the mask over his face and started the treatment. I held him while the machine hissed out the cloud of medication that gradually calmed his rattled breathing. This man didn't seem to notice. Finally, I told him in a voice that was shaking almost as much as my hands that I wasn't judging him and I didn't want to fight. I just needed to leave. And that was that.
The next Sunday morning the pastor got up and told everyone that Dave and Terri and Bonnie and Jim (my mom and dad) were leaving and no one should talk to them. I was really the only one who said I was leaving, but apparently that made everyone related to me dangerous so they threw out the babies (my husband and parents) with the bathwater (me). I guess you just have to cut your losses sometimes. My husband's mother, who was the church secretary at the time and who had given her whole life to the church, was sitting in the congregation sobbing helplessly and uncontrollably. It was one of the most fear-driven things I have ever witnessed, but it ended up giving them permission to leave when they really might not have been able to do it on their own for a very long time. So I left, and Dave got kicked out. Now you know. Dog-gone.
As I look back on all those years I mostly feel really grateful. I plundered that place and walked away with loot you just can't even imagine. I found my dearest love there. I developed some of my most important friendships there and they are some of the closest people to me to this day. (Incidentally, that church has changed like crazy over the years and has become a much safer place.) I learned to really throw myself at God with abandon and listen with intensity and persistence. I thank God for all of that. It will always be a part of me. But this is not the end of the story. Not by a long shot.